Good morning and thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. It’s a pleasure to be here. My name is Lisa Freeman, and I’m president of Northern Illinois University. If we were in person today, I would have with me at the testimony table our Executive Vice President and Provost, Beth Ingram, and Vice President for Administration and Finance, Sarah Chinniah. They are here virtually, as are Vernese Edghill-Walden, vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Interim Chief Human Resources Officer; and Sol Jensen, vice Ppesident for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications.
Let me get straight to the point. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly created many challenges for not only NIU but all universities over the past year. We are grateful for receiving federal CARES money, state GEER funding and the free saliva-based Shield tests that we have used on campus for surveillance testing. The assistance from both the federal and state governments has helped us immensely as we have faced an unprecedented loss of revenue and increased costs from the pandemic. Importantly, the allocation of funds allowed us to provide emergency relief funding, as well as academic and social support to NIU students who have significant need.
In addition to the governmental relief, we have done our best to control expenses in the wake of lost revenue. Members of NIU’s senior leadership team took voluntary pay cuts. The university implemented a voluntary retirement incentive program for our employees and enacted a hiring chill. In addition, we delayed important deferred maintenance projects. Those responses, along with the state and federal aid, will allow us to essentially break even in FY21.
That said, such actions are not sustainable, and NIU will continue to face fiscal challenges in the coming year due to the continued impact of COVID-19. Although we are emerging from the pandemic, auxiliary revenues are projected to recover slowly, and costs related to COVID mitigation will continue.
We are also mindful that the state faces budgetary challenges for many similar reasons. That is why we are appreciative of Gov. Pritzker’s budget proposal to hold higher education funding flat in FY22 and maintain our appropriation of $87.8 million. In addition, we are grateful that money for capital projects and deferred maintenance was reappropriated. Our university, region and state will benefit from the construction of our long-awaited Health Informatics building as well as our hub in the Illinois Innovation Network, the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability. Successful completion of these projects will enhance our research facilities and capabilities, attract community partners, train health professionals to address recognized needs and bolster our recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff.
Although budget challenges remain, we have much to be optimistic about. Despite a national data that showed that high school graduates enrolling in college dropped 6.8% this year, NIU saw its total enrollment grow. Most notably, our freshmen enrollment increased 8%, College of Law enrollment grew 12%, and our graduate and professional enrollment held steady.
As important, our first-year retention rate rose 6 percentage points to 78%, the highest in 15 years. Specifically, we saw a 10-percentage-point jump in retention of students of color, with similar increases for first-generation and low-income students. These increases may be attributed to the implementation of the Strategic Enrollment Management Plan that we released in 2019, as well as the Equity Plan supported by our collaboration with the Illinois Equity in Attainment initiative.
At NIU, we believe a life-changing education should be within reach of everyone, with access, opportunity and success for all students. We are leading the way in Illinois and nationally to remove barriers to admission and persistence, and I want to share details of a few of our focused efforts to make an NIU degree accessible, equitable and affordable.
Our adoption of the Common App has made it easier for students to apply to NIU, and applications for fall 2021 admission are the highest ever.
Prior to the pandemic, we became one of the nation’s first public universities to announce test-free admissions and merit scholarship processes, because we recognized the inequity associated with relying on standardized tests to make admission and financial aid decisions. Our review of national studies on the subject – in concert with our own institutional analysis of more than 20 years of data – confirmed that:
- High school GPA is a better predictor of college GPA and graduation rate than the ACT/SAT.
- Test scores are most strongly correlated with family income and parental education level.
- The students most likely to have strong high school GPAs and low test scores were students of color, first-generation to college, students who speak a second language at home and low-income students.
This made us particularly concerned about how standardized test scores could be limiting students’ access to merit-based scholarships.
So, we looked specifically at students who entered NIU with a strong high school GPA and maintained good academic standing but did not persist through graduation. We saw that, most often, financial issues were responsible for them leaving NIU without completing degrees. And we saw an opportunity to decrease student debt and increase degree completion by offering students scholarships based on GPA without consideration of standardized test scores. This is the philosophy we used to deploy Aim High dollars.
In particular, our Huskie Pledge program, funded with AIM HIGH dollars, is helping to ensure that academically impressive Illinois students from lower-income households can attend college with no tuition or general fees for their first year and beyond. In the fall of 2020, the first year of the scholarship program, NIU had more than 700 Huskie Pledge recipients in our freshman class. Their average high school GPA was 3.57; 80% are students of color and three of every four are the first in their families to enroll in college. Its impact can be summed up by the student comment:
“This program is saving my family. My dad just not that long ago lost his job, and this program saved my career and my future. This program gives me and my family a chance for success.”
Beyond the Huskie pledge, NIU has eliminated standardized test scores in award criteria for all merit scholarships. This is our first year of that change, and we won’t have final enrollment impacts until September. However, we can already tell by both admission and scholarship offers that the changes have already been positive for students and the university.
Comparing final fall 2020 scholarship awarding to mid-March awarding for fall 2021, we noted that the total scholarships awarded more than doubled for Latinx, Asian and Black students. When we consider our Tier 1 merit scholarships ($7,000 per year for four years) we see that awards increased by 150% for Asians, 294% for Latinx and 387% for Blacks.
Lessening the financial barriers to a college degree is important, but it’s only one of the ways that we are focusing on equity. We have committed to closing gaps in degree attainment and academic achievement particularly for low-income, first-generation African American and Latinx students. In fact, this is a priority, and among several equity and inclusion focused university goals proposed by me and approved by the Board of Trustees.
To this end, NIU has worked with the Partnership for College Completion on developing a five-year plan to support “Equity in Attainment” and contributed to the “Equity Working Group for Black Student Access and Success in IL Higher Education.” We are employing several strategies, including:
- Eliminating all non-college-level math courses and revising repeat policies.
- Providing supplemental instruction in all gateway courses with high D/F/W and/or equity gaps, and
- Building capacity in mentoring programs for students of color.
At this time when the Illinois Board of Higher Education is making equity the centerpiece of its strategic plan, its board chair described NIU’s equity agenda as “a difference-maker” that is “driving how other institutions think about their mission.” NIU will continue to set the pace, especially during this time, when our students face extraordinary challenges.
To close my appropriations remarks, I want to leave you with an understanding of how NIU executes its public mission. We are intentional in our planning, have a strong equity orientation, are good stewards of public funds and have used those funds to advance the social mobility of students from underserved communities.
In addition, our students, staff and faculty engage with all of the communities we serve and generate impactful research. We provide invaluable support to local businesses who need assistance with their pandemic response, and we will continue to contribute to our community and society in ways that will make our entire state proud.