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Good, bad and steady: Illinois university enrollment trends

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SIU Campus (copy)

Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Each fall, Southern Illinois University officials and community leaders eagerly anticipate the release of official tenth-day enrollment numbers, crossing fingers and hoping for higher enrollment.

This year, the campus community was encouraged by the second consecutive year of a larger freshman class and a very slight dip of total enrollment — 100 fewer students than fall 2020.

Total enrollment at SIU, counting both undergraduate and graduate students, is 11,266. When the official enrollment figures were released, SIU Chancellor Austin A. Lane was optimistic looking forward.

“It’s refreshing,” he said. “We’ve had a downward spiral and this brings hope that if we continue to work hard and do as much as we can we’re going to continue to move the needle and change the trajectory where we want to be.”

But what about the other state institutions which compete with SIU for students? How are their numbers and what are the universities saying about their enrollment figures? 

Eastern Illinois University

The Charleston university reported fall 2020 total enrollment of 8,608 students, down 0.2% from last year. EIU’s media release on tenth-day enrollment figures said campus officials describe 2021 enrollment as “solid, steady and poised for additional growth.”

However, Eastern’s reported enrollment includes area high school students enrolled in dual-credit programs; actual on-campus students number 4,625 – 116 lower than in 2020.

Illinois State University

Illinois State University also reported an increase in new freshmen and transfer students, but overall the institution enrolled 487 fewer students for fall in what ISU called “a modest 2% decline.”

Fall 2021 enrollment at the Normal campus stands at 20,233.

Northern Illinois University

Like SIU, Northern Illinois University is focusing on the growth of freshmen numbers, boasting the largest year-over-year increase in freshman in more than 20 years.

However, overall enrollment for fall at NIU is down 3% from last year, with 16,234 total students.

In its official news release about student numbers, the university said the decline was “largely attributed to disruptions caused by the global pandemic and its impact felt by college students nationwide.”

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville continues to grow, and remains the largest university in the SIU system. Fall enrollment at SIUE grew 1.2% (150 students) to 13,010, mostly due to more than 3,000 graduate students, the largest number in 44 years.

International enrollment at SIUE grew by 48% and first-year undergraduates number 1,992 for fall.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

A news release from the University of Illinois’ flagship campus makes it clear: “With a freshman enrollment of 8,303, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has welcomed a record-breaking freshman class for the 2021-22 academic year. The new class brings total student enrollment to 56,299, the largest in university history.”

The increase amounts to nearly 4,000 more students in Urbana-Champaign. The university, however, may be looking at reducing enrollment in the future.

“We do not plan to increase by this percentage every year,” Director of Undergraduate Admissions Andy Borst said in the news release. “Next year, in order to ensure that we are maintaining our undergraduate enrollment within the bounds of university resources, we are planning to intentionally reduce our target by approximately 600 students to be more in line with previous years.”

Western Illinois University

At Western Illinois University in Macomb, total fall enrollment stands at 7,455 students, down 45 students from the previous year. WIU boasted a historical high of international students and a 26% increase in graduate students. The number of undergraduates – traditional college students – actually dropped by 460 students.

Like Eastern, WIU enrollment includes 86 dual-credit high school students.

Across the Rivers

Southern Illinois University competes for students not only with other Illinois public schools, but also with universities in neighboring states.

Murray State University in Kentucky and Southeastern Missouri State University, both of which recruit extensively in SIU’s backyard, are on that list. 

Southeastern Missouri State University

Southeastern Missouri State University’s enrollment continues to decline. According to SEMO’s Three Year Enrollment Report, the combined number of undergraduates and graduate students at the Cape Girardeau university is 9,851, down 150 (or 1.5%) over 2020.

Further analysis at previous reports indicates SEMO enrollment has slid downward every year since 2015 when enrollment was 11,987.

Murray State University

“Illinois is a very good state for us”

Institutions in Kentucky do not report tenth-day enrollment as Illinois schools do.

Official numbers from Murray State University for the fall semester will not be released until Mid-November. For fall 2020, the college reported enrollment of 9,456, down 113 students from 2019.

However, the Murray Ledger-Times recently reported comments made by MSU officials at the September meeting of the university’s Board of Regents regarding enrollment.

Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Strategic Planning Renee Fister told the board that preliminary fall enrollment numbers were flat compared with 2019 and about 2% above 2020. She said in-state enrollment was down, but an increasing number of students are enrolling from other states.

Murray State Vice President of Student Affairs Don Robertson said, “Illinois is a very good state for us, and so we really benefited from Illinois," according to the publication.  

University President Bob Jackson told the regents Illinois is the No. 2 state in the country, second only to California, for exporting students. He explained that there are not enough available college “slots” for in-state students in California, but added that students from Illinois “want to come here," according to the publication.


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