CHAMPAIGN — — Many of Illinois' public universities are bucking a national trend of generally declining enrollment, welcoming larger freshmen classes to their campuses this fall.
Experts warn not to read too much into the increases, but the schools say higher numbers show there's something at work — from the University of Illinois' strong science and math programs to marketing and financial aid efforts at smaller universities to draw more students, particularly from the Chicago area.
"We've been working hard on an overall enrollment management strategy and those efforts are beginning to pay off," Eastern Illinois University provost Blair Lord said. The Charleston school's overall enrollment was down 5.7 percent but freshman enrollment went up for the first time in four years, rising 2.5 percent to 1,254.
Other universities with increases included the University of Illinois' flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign, the University of Illinois Springfield, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which drew its largest freshman class in two decades after offering new scholarships and financial aid.
Even declining freshman numbers at some other schools were historically high — the 1,966 students who started this fall at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, despite being 5 percent less than last year, are part of the fourth-largest incoming class in school history.
Around the country, higher education enrollments are falling. The National Student Clearinghouse reported in May that enrollment was down by 2.3 percent for the spring semester, the third straight semester of declines. Both four-year public and community college enrollments are part of that trend, though private schools continue to grow.
Terry Hartle, vice president at the American Council on Education, says that while schools never like to see enrollments drop, the current trend shouldn't set off alarms.
"Enrollment boomed during the economic downturn and, as the economy recovered, some individuals have gone into the workforce and stayed there," he said.