Illinois Colleges Grapple With 10-year Enrollment Decline

College of DuPage
A 2014 registration event at the College of DuPage. COD Newsroom / Flickr
College of DuPage
A 2014 registration event at the College of DuPage. COD Newsroom / Flickr

Illinois Colleges Grapple With 10-year Enrollment Decline

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Colleges across the nation are experiencing continued enrollment decline, and Illinois is no exception. The state’s community colleges and public universities experienced a decline of nearly 100,000 students over the last decade — and community colleges are taking the biggest hit.

College of Dupage Interim President Brian Caputo joins the Morning Shift for a look at what may be causing enrollment decline and to discuss efforts to combat the issue.

How has enrollment been trending at community colleges?

Brian Caputo: The community colleges across the country have declined. In Illinois, over the last 10 years, the decline has been about 21 percent. But for the College of DuPage, we fared significantly better — we’ve only been down by about 3 percent. But we’re still not happy with any decline at all.

Odette Yousef: What do you attribute this decline to?

Caputo: For community colleges, when you see the economy doing well typically there’s less enrollment in community colleges. It’s kind of an inverse relationship with the economy. Also the eligible high school students, at least in our area, is declining. Between 2012 and 2016, for example, our high school eligible population was down 5.5 percent. You mentioned also an outmigration of students from Illinois. There has been, overall, to other neighboring states and beyond.

Yousef: When you mention a decline in the number of eligible high school graduates in the area, that may be tied to the overall decline in state population. Would you be expecting that these lower population numbers mean that the new norm will be lower enrollment numbers?

Caputo: It is possible, and some institutions are thinking about what do they need to adjust to the generally lower population. But quite frankly with the College of DuPage, we feel we’ve got an enormous amount to offer and we are pursuing deeper penetration in our markets to make the needle to go the other direction — that is positively rather than negatively.

On reversing college enrollment decline

Caputo: There’s a couple of key programs. One of them that’s quite prevalent across higher education is Guided Pathways, which really is a program that tries to get students into an institution in an efficient manner without getting caught up in a lot of developmental courses … and taking the classes that they need and not the classes they don’t need. And at the community college level, understanding where the student is going next and making sure they get the courses at the community college that will allow them to gain junior standing and admission into a major when they get to a four-year school.

University of Illinois campuses have seen gains despite overall trends

Yousef: Has it taken anything different on the university’s part to try to increase the student population while the overall trend nationally has been decline?

Dan Mann: We’ve been very deliberate in trying to address cost issues. We think that affordability is one of the big issues that many students and families face, when they’re looking at the price of college. For the fifth straight year, we froze our in-state tuition… we have grown financial aid over 900 percent during the last decade, so we realize that not only is our cost an issue but making sure that students have grants and scholarships and other aid to help make their education is important.

Yousef: A lot of the public universities in Illinois were reeling from budget cuts during the state budget impasses of 2015 and 2016, and yet the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chicago were able to increase enrollment during that time. How were you all immune to those pains?

Mann: It affected everybody. We were fortunate that we were able to maintain our financial aid packages for everyone. But there is a little bit of concern that’s out there amongst the public in general about the budget impasse — are we still affordable? Will we continue to be affordable in the future? So I think part of the really negative part about of having the budget impasse was that it left some perceptions on students and families regarding the value of higher education.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Stephanie Kim. Click “play” to hear the full conversation.

GUESTS: Brian Caputo, interim president at the College of DuPage

Dan Mann, associate provost for enrollment management, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

LEARN MORE: Illinois college enrollment declines show little sign of subsiding (Rockford Register Star 2/16/19)