As Colleges Close, Elmhurst College Grows And Rebrands As A University
This time next year, Elmhurst College won’t exist.
But the school isn’t closing; the nearly 150-year-old school is changing its name to become Elmhurst University.
It’s part of an evolution for the west suburban school, which is working hard to avoid the fate of other private colleges across the country that have merged or closed due to declining enrollments and dwindling tuition revenue.
Elmhurst is moving in the opposite direction. After a few years of declining enrollment, it recently notched its largest undergraduate and graduate population in the school’s history, with 3,500 students in 2017.
Much of that increase is driven by growth in graduate students as more master’s programs were added in recent years, including in occupational therapy. Its graduate offerings allows the school to call itself a university. But it’s undergraduate program is slowly growing too. The growth is the result of a multipronged effort to recruit more students and build up its reputation nationally and internationally.
“It is a perilous time in higher education,” said Vice President of Admission Tim Ricordati. “I don’t mean this facetiously but over the next 10 years, 20 years and beyond there’s going to be [fewer colleges]. Schools need to figure out ways to be innovative and reach students in a nontraditional way.”
As Elmhurst welcomes more students and rises in regional rankings of U.S. News & World Report, school leaders say they’re looking to capitalize on that positive trajectory.
“We want to help doing it at a time of strength, when you have strong enrollments, strong revenues,” Ricordati said. “You never want to do it at a period of weakness.”
Clearing up confusion
While Elmhurst College leaders said changing the name will clarify the school’s curriculum, it’s also a recruitment tactic.
School leaders say they want to make it clear to prospective students and employers that Elmhurst is a four-year school. In the past, two-year schools called themselves junior colleges. But over time many schools removed the word junior, making it more difficult to differentiate between two- and four-year schools.
“I have had friends or even different people who have come on tours ask, ‘Is [this] a four-year school or two-year school?’” junior Chris Binder said during a tour of campus last month.
School leaders also say they plan to expand their curriculum to offer doctoral programs in the next few years.
Elmhurst also wants to attract more international students, who pay higher tuition, and want to avoid any confusion among those students, since college in many countries can mean high school or a technical program rather than a university.
Elmhurst credits its new scholarship competitions as one way they’ve seen undergraduate enrollment jump slightly in the past two years.
First, they started a scholarship program for accepted first-generation college students called the American Dream Fellowship.
Applicants submit videos explaining what graduating from college would mean for their family. Then, students and their families come to campus for a day of interviews and panels. Top winners received a four-year full scholarship, four years of room and board or four years of books and supplies. Each student who participates leaves with a $1,000 scholarship to Elmhurst.
“Out of 150 kids that participate, we run about 60% of those kids [who] actually attend Elmhurst,” Ricordati said. “That’s a huge yield.”
This year, the school also started a second scholarship competition for students interested in pursuing majors and careers where they would serve their communities. Students are brought to campus and put in groups to develop projects that would improve the communities they live. Ricordati says 72% of the 150 students who participated in that competition committed to coming to Elmhurst this fall.
Elmhurst has beefed up its fundraising in recent years, which helps finance some of these scholarships.
Beyond the "proverbial table visit"
Elmhurst College also has started enhancing its partnerships with local high schools and community colleges in unique ways.
They guarantee admission to transfer students who’ve earned an associate degree from certain local community colleges.
And this year, they started sending professors to local high schools and community college classrooms. They aren’t sent to pitch Elmhurst directly, but to talk to students about the subjects they teach.
“If they want to learn more about what’s happening with cybersecurity, what’s happening in digital media, what’s happening in supply chain management,” Ricordati said, “that’s more effective than the proverbial table visit where you’re sitting there going ‘Hi!’”
The majority of Elmhurst's students come from the surrounding counties.
This month, Elmhurst also welcomes a group of international high school students to campus for a summer immersion program that allows them to take a business class for college credit.
Elmhurst officials say they’re proud of their success, but they’re not naive about the realities that lie ahead: there are fewer college-age students nationally, which means everyone — private and public schools — will be recruiting from a smaller group of students. Plus, the ever-present issue of the growing cost of higher education continues to keep students away. Officials hope their efforts buffer them against these powerful trends and continue to pay off.