September 09, 2021
Multi-year planning, groundbreaking admissions policies seen as driving increase
Northern Illinois University saw its new freshman enrollment climb this fall by nearly 12% over the same time last year—the largest year-over-year percentage increase in the freshman class in more than two decades.
According to the official census on the 10th day of attendance, total freshman enrollment for fall 2021 increased to 2,285, up 238 students over last fall. With this year's jump, NIU far surpassed the 2021 freshman enrollment goal in its multi-year Strategic Management Enrollment Plan, while recording the fifth straight year of growth among incoming freshmen.
Additionally, the freshman class arrives at NIU with an average high school GPA of 3.34, the second highest in 10 years. Looking at other characteristics of the incoming class, 57% of the new freshmen are first-generation college students. NIU also continued to have success recruiting students of color. The new freshman class is the most diverse in university history.
"Guided by our multi-year planning efforts, we're leading the way in Illinois and nationally in our efforts to remove barriers to a high-quality college education," NIU President Lisa Freeman said. "It's been an incredibly challenging year, but we're seeing very positive trends in key areas, from our freshman enrollment growth to our 10-year external-funding high for faculty and staff research, education and service projects, which provide meaningful opportunities for student engagement."
The number of new master's-level and professional-degree students increased by 38%, while new doctoral students increased by 22%. The NIU College of Law grew for the third straight year. Despite significant declines in the region's community college population, NIU's enrollment of new transfer students generally held steady.
Total NIU enrollment for fall 2021 is 16,234, a modest decrease of 3% from 2020 that is largely attributed to disruptions caused by the global pandemic and its impact felt by college students nationwide. The percentage reflects overall decreases in both undergraduate enrollment and enrollment in graduate and professional programs.
"Knowing that the past year was difficult for students, we've worked extremely hard to return to a more traditional, in-person experience this fall," Provost Beth Ingram said. "We also have continued to make considerable investments of time and resources to support our students by expanding and enhancing tutoring, academic advising and student financial advising. We're here to help them succeed."
At the undergraduate level, the university instituted a combination of new admissions policies that are credited with driving the freshman enrollment increase. Recognizing that students' hard work in high school is reflected in their grades, NIU became one of the nation's first public universities to announce test-free admissions and merit scholarship processes.
Students are now automatically considered for merit scholarships when they apply to NIU based solely on the GPA from their high school transcripts. Eliminating the use of standardized tests in determining eligibility for merit scholarships served to make the process more equitable and diversify NIU's pool of scholarship applicants and recipients. Of 1,614 freshman merit scholarship recipients this fall, 64% are students of color, compared to 54% in 2020.
"Test-free merit scholarships correct the misperception that access to higher education is created only through the admissions process—it's just as impactful to create access through the financial aid/scholarship process," said Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications.
"We also believe that our new test-free merit scholarships will help with future student retention by providing consistent funding that students can count on over four years, as long as they continue to meet scholarship program requirements."
The university's Huskie Pledge program, funded by the State of Illinois' AIM HIGH Program, continues to ensure that qualifying Illinois students from lower-income households can attend college with no tuition or general fees for their first year and potentially beyond. In the fall of 2021, 877 students (39% of the incoming freshman class) received NIU's Huskie Pledge and paid no out-of-pocket expenses for tuition and general fees.
For the first time in recent years, NIU enrollment of U.S. students from outside of Illinois exceeded 1,000. Beginning in the fall of 2018, NIU implemented a new domestic rate structure for tuition that set out-of-state tuition for domestic students at the equivalent of the in-state tuition rate, effectively making NIU more affordable to U.S. students from outside the Land of Lincoln. From 2017 to 2021, the number of out-of-state domestic students has increased by more than 50%. NIU's student population now represents all 50 U.S. states.
"We're pleased to see that NIU is attracting students from Illinois and well beyond," Jensen said. "During this unusual year, our freshman numbers and other trends point to a strategic enrollment plan that continues to serve as a foundation for our future."
NIU also eliminated undergraduate application fees and joined the Common App in August 2020 to reduce barriers for students in their pursuit of higher education. The Common App gives students a way to apply to NIU and multiple other colleges with one online application. The university saw a 30% increase in the total number of applicants over 2020.
While interest in NIU is growing, more students also are choosing to live in on-campus housing, as occupancy (3,694 students) is at a five-year high.
"Our efforts represent a major university commitment to our vision of being an engine for innovation to advance upward social mobility, promote intellectual growth and transform the world," Provost Ingram said. "Our positive enrollment trends speak to the success of those efforts, as well as to the high quality of our faculty and academic programs."