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After months of dire predictions nationwide for fall college attendance, Northern Illinois University announced Tuesday that total enrollment is up for fall 2020.

Students are back on campus at NIU, where 8% growth in the freshman class helped the university post enrollment gains this fall.

According to the official census on the 10th day of attendance, total enrollment for fall 2020 climbed to 16,769, up 160 students (1%) from 2019. Driving that growth is a freshman class of 2,047 (up 8%), and a six-percentage-point improvement in retention of first-year students.

“NIU increased total enrollment during this challenging and dynamic time by attracting a freshman class that is strong in number, talent and diversity, and by welcoming back continuing undergraduate, graduate and law students who appreciate the quality and affordability of our educational experience,” said NIU President Dr. Lisa C. Freeman. “It is deeply gratifying that students were able to look beyond the uncertainty of these last several months and recognize that NIU offers a tremendous combination of access and excellence.”

The College of Visual and Performing Arts continued a recent trend of its own. The college saw a 1.8% increase over 2019, which continues a steady climb that has seen undergraduate enrollment grow by 3.9% since 2017. The School of Art and Design has increased enrollment 3.4% over the last three years, the School of Music is up 7.1% since 2017 and the School of Theatre and Dance increased 7.8% this year over last, part of an enrollment increase of 15.3% since 2017.

“The enrollment growth in the college and the schools is further evidence of how important the arts are to the next generation of students,” said Paul Kassel, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “They want to hone their talents and know we offer great training with outstanding teachers, artists, and scholars.  We’re thrilled with the new class that has joined us and are excited to partner with them as they develop their gifts and then offer them to the world.”

With this year’s jump, NIU surpassed their 2020 total enrollment goal put forth in its Strategic Enrollment Management plan and recorded its third straight year of growth among incoming freshmen. The university also set five-year highs for total number of applicants, number of applicants who met acceptance criteria and the number of applicants who confirmed interest to the university. All of that indicates that the university’s Strategic Enrollment Management Plan is working.

“Since we approved the plan in January 2019, we have dramatically changed how we approach potential students,” said Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications. “We are identifying potential Huskies earlier in their high school careers, communicating with them more frequently and more strategically, and raising our profile through more aggressive and targeted advertising. It is satisfying to see those efforts already yielding results.”

Improved undergraduate retention is another key facet of NIU’s Strategic Enrollment Management plan, and this fall’s numbers reflect significant progress in that regard. Overall retention of first-year students climbed 6 percentage points (to 78%). That was driven by significant growth in the retention rates for students of color, as African American, Latinx and Asian students were all up by at least 10 percentage points from a year ago.

Those improvements are attributed to NIU’s commitment to removing barriers to college graduation for all students, including improvements in how the university identifies and assists students struggling to make the adjustment to college, said Executive Vice President and Provost Beth Ingram. “The approaches we’ve developed and implemented — before and during COVID-19 — to support our first-year students enabled them to thrive and re-enroll at NIU,” she said. “Just as importantly, these measures should also help us maintain the improvements in retention and student success going forward.”

Improved retention rates helped drive up enrollment at NIU this fall.

One area where numbers slipped was among new transfer students, which declined to 1,504 (a decrease of 7%). The drop reflects continued declines in the region’s community college population.

Looking at the characteristics of the incoming class, NIU continued to have success recruiting students of color, particularly Black students. While colleges and universities across the country, including Illinois, have seen declining enrollment rates for Black students, NIU recorded its fifth straight year of increased African American enrollment in the freshman class. This year, 35% of entering freshmen are Black (up 2 percentage points), the highest that figure has been in university history. Latinx enrollment also grew, accounting for 23% of the incoming class (up 3 percentage points).

This year’s incoming class also boasts a strong academic profile. The average high school GPA among new freshmen was 3.32 — the second highest it has been in 11 years — and the percentage of applicants with GPAs of 3.5 or better grew by 16%.

Some of that increase can likely be attributed to the university’s new Huskie Pledge. Implemented this past year, the program guarantees that all tuition and fees will be covered by grants and scholarships for any Illinois students with high school GPAs of 3.0 or better and whose families have incomes of $75,000 or less.

The good news extended to graduate and professional enrollment. The NIU College of Law grew for the third straight year, up by 33 students (12%). Among all other graduate and professional programs, enrollment held steady at 4,185.

In all, Dr. Freeman said, this year’s enrollment numbers are cause for great optimism and pride.

“This is one of the most diverse and talented incoming classes that we have ever recruited, and we hope that this sets the trend for the years ahead,” she said.