Historically low unemployment rates, a shrinking population, funding instability and increased competition from other states have resulted in widespread enrollment declines at most Illinois colleges.
Few schools have welcomed more students than previous years while many saw their fall enrollments go down from year to year, some dramatically, forcing institutions of higher learning across the state to slash faculty and programs as they struggle to adopt new business models in hopes of rebuilding student bodies.
“Higher education often trades on reputation. If citizens are concerned about whether or not an institution is going to have the funding to provide the programming they want, then it can impact their decision to go there,” said Brian Durham, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board. “There also is a pressure on grant funds and financial aid that affects students’ ability to pay.
“When funding problems become extreme, whether it’s real or perceived. … When there are layoffs and services being cut, people read about those things in the paper. If folks are worried about a college, they make other decisions about what to do.”
That’s just one piece of the puzzle, Durham said. The state’s enrollment troubles are driven by several factors, some more easily addressed than others.
Discussions around college enrollment and graduation rates have become increasingly important in recent years as the state works to increase post-secondary educational attainment among residents to meet workforce and economic needs.
Fewer than 50 percent of adults in Illinois ages 25 to 64 have some type of post-secondary degree or certificate. The state adopted a “60 percent by 2025” goal in 2009.
To reach that goal, colleges and universities are launching initiatives to attract, retain and graduate students. Despite declining enrollment, community colleges statewide are graduating more students, going from 56,884 in 2010 to 66,143 in 2017.
Disparity among losses
Illinois’ community colleges and state universities experienced a decline of nearly 100,000 students from fall 2008 to fall 2018.
About 75,000 of those losses were at the community college level — a 21 percent overall decline over 10 years. Public universities, as a whole, saw a 10 percent enrollment drop over the same period.
A closer look at the state’s colleges and universities reveals large enrollment disparities.
Some schools have gained students in these trying times. The University of Illinois at Chicago has experienced explosive enrollment growth — 23 percent — as has McHenry County College, which has grown 31 percent.
Some schools are shadows of their former selves. Chicago State University has seen enrollment drop by 57 percent. Shawnee, Kennedy-King and Rend Lake community colleges all have seen student declines of more than 50 percent.
Both the community college board and Illinois Board of Higher Education released their fall 2018 enrollment numbers with hopeful news releases last fall, recognizing continuing declines but pointing to bright spots such as increases in students taking online classes, higher graduation rates and areas in which enrollment decreases have slowed.
Meanwhile, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, post-secondary education enrollments nationwide were down 1.7 percent from fall 2017 to fall 2018.
Seven of the state’s 12 public universities are losing students at a faster rate than the state average.
On the community college side, 30 of the state’s 48 institutions have had larger student population losses than the state overall. Those include Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon and Spoon River College in Canton.
In Illinois, the state’s flagship University of Illinois System has emerged from these challenges in an enviable position.
The University of Illinois Chicago, or UIC, and U of I at Urbana-Champaign are up by about 6,000 students each.
Enrollment at the U of I’s third campus, in Springfield, has declined 3 percent. Only two other schools in the state can report only small decreases — Illinois State University, down 1 percent, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, with 2 percent fewer students.
Barbara Wilson, U of I executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs, chalks up the system’s ability to thrive in recent years to aggressive recruitment, outreach, financial aid and sheer size.
The U of I system has done several things in recent years to counter statewide and national enrollment trends, Wilson said. It has invested heavily in its Chicago campus, frozen tuition, and launched Illinois Commitment, which will start offering free tuition to Urbana-Champaign for in-state students whose families meet certain income criteria.
“That’s a game-changer,” Wilson said of Illinois Commitment. “It’s a family of four making less than $61,000. That promise has gotten a lot of attention.”
Wilson believes all of those things combined helped U of I weather the state’s budget storm and stay attractive in the eyes of students.
“There is no doubt that during dramatic decreases in state funding there was a reputational hit,” Wilson said. “A lot of institutions outside the state were using that against us as part of their recruitment strategy.
“What you get with big universities like Chicago and Urbana is we can withstand those challenges a little better than some of the regional campuses throughout the state. Yes those budget cuts hurt us, but they haven’t decimated us.”
Northern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale all have seen declines in the 30 percent range — from a combined 70,285 students in 2008 to 46,014.
In the Rockford area, Rock Valley College has seen a 23 percent drop in student enrollment the past 10 years and Highland Community College has seen a 27 percent drop.
While public universities point more to population loss and competition from out-of-state schools as their chief obstacles, community colleges tend to put more emphasis on the unemployment rate.
“A community college student is increasingly 25 years old, part time and working,” RVC President Doug Jensen said. “When the economy is up, the opportunity for some of these individuals to make additional income to support their families rises and what they will do is slow down their educational progression so that they can take advantage of that.
“There is a strong correlation between our enrollment decline and the unemployment rate.”
The key to attracting and retaining students in that environment is aligning educational programming with community needs, Jensen said.
“If that community college student is an adult, probably a resident with commitments to stay in this area, they’re looking for education that will allow them to be successful in this community,” he said. “That’s what’s behind some of the programming we’ve done with pathways and being able to get a degree in high-demand fields without having to leave the area.”
Highland has continued to enroll about 30 percent of the graduating seniors in its district despite enrollment declines. The number was 34 percent in fall 2008. It was 30 percent in fall 2018.
“We continue to recruit more diverse ranges of students for a very affordable and high-quality education,” said Highland President Tim Hood. “Like most community college districts in Illinois, we are losing population while high school graduating classes continue to decline. Despite this, we are seeing significant enrollment increases in lifelong learning classes and in a good number of our degree and certificate programs.”
Lincoln Land College in Springfield serves about 5,600 students, a drop from the roughly 6,700 students it had in 2008 but a much smaller decline than other institutions.
“Each community college has a unique set of challenges in the current environment,” said Lincoln Land spokeswoman Lynn Whalen. “We’ve addressed enrollment management with a two-pronged approach focusing on recruitment and retention. We’ve invested in strategies such as a mandatory new student orientation program, case management student advising and increasing support for at-risk students.”
The school also has beefed up online course offerings, dual credit partnerships with area high schools, degree pathways with four-year colleges and universities and worked with local employers to address workforce development.
Whalen said the college plans to expand programming in agriculture, aviation maintenance and cybersecurity in coming years.