18,000 students by 2023? NIU's new five-year strategic enrollment plan promises growth

NIU officials look to diversify student body and attract online pupils

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DeKALB – Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman’s goal is to have 18,000 students at the institution by fall 2023 as part of a plan to stem years of enrollment decline.

The strategic enrollment management plan aims to stabilize the university's enrollment within the next five school years, expand online course enrollment and diversify the student population.

Steps include new recruitment and branding efforts, implementation of best practices for retention, identifying more financial aid initiatives, and improving the equity gap for students from diverse backgrounds.

Freeman identified three main aspects of the plan while sitting in her office in Altgeld Hall with acting Provost Chris McCord and Sol Jensen, vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications.

“The first is, our student body will look a little different than it has,” Freeman said. “[Second], we expect to see some continued growth in online students, and [third] we aspire to be a Hispanic-serving institution, being realistic about the demographics and the opportunities to meet our missions by meeting students where they are, and the educational opportunities that will work for them.”

A number of student affairs, diversity teams and department leaders contributed to the data-driven plan, Freeman said, along with information gathered from student surveys, course evaluations and enrollment patterns.

McCord said the undergraduate population of NIU currently is about 19 percent Hispanic, but the goal is to reach at least 25 percent by 2023.

“We’re recognizing that we need to not only recruit and retain, but also graduate our diverse population,” McCord said.

According to demographic data in the 36-page plan document, during the past 10 years the undergraduate population of minority students has increased from 29 percent to 45 percent. White students made up 69 percent of the overall student population in 2009 and 53 percent in fall 2018.

NIU enrollment peaked just before the Great Recession, with almost
25,000 total students enrolled for the 2007-08 school year (23,000 students lived on campus). Enrollment has been at a steady 30 percent decline since then, and now sits at 17,100. NIU is DeKalb County's largest employer, and student population decline has directly affected the local economy.

The strategic plan points to a steady slump in state funding for public education, rising costs of higher education institutions and data analysis that shows Illinois will have a decline in high school graduates in the next 15 years.

“Times have changed since 2007,” Jensen said. “We feel like the [fall 2023 enrollment number] is realistic from a true data analysis standpoint, and that this is what we expect the size of NIU to be for the foreseeable future.”

McCord said an accountability plan currently is in development, which will allow plan organizers to meet benchmark goals throughout the next five years, and might better address what is working and what isn’t, as well as how to adjust accordingly. Jensen said that implementation of changes to the university’s marketing and outreach efforts already are underway.

Additionally, Jensen already is in conversations with North Carolina-based tech partner Ivy.AI to develop an artificial intelligence bot that will be able to allow prospective students access to information 24/7, and have answers to their questions – ranging from details about a nursing program to financial aid packages – personalized by the bot.

“[The bot] crawls our websites, and based on that, they pull out different types of questions,” Jensen said. “They came up with about 1,300 different pieces of content already, and we will fill in the details. Right now, we’re focusing on admission, financial aid and orientation.”

The bot allows prospective students to inquire about programs at NIU during any hour, from anywhere across the world, which Jensen said will help grow student interest in the programs and benefit recruitment.

Jensen identified programs such as Aim High – a new $5 million scholarship program for local students in DeKalb County – as another example of a first-step effort to implement the strategic enrollment plan.

Freeman said she hopes the greater DeKalb County community will do its part to realize the benefit NIU students have to countywide growth.

“We all have the ability to make students feel welcome and included,” Freeman said. “The student’s greatest value to our community isn’t just the money they spend with landlords or in stores, it’s the fact that they’re graduating as talented professionals who can be employees of businesses that are here, businesses that we’re trying to attract, and wealth creators and entrepreneurs of the future.”