Manaja Miller likes suspense and mystery novels. When she was a senior at Bogan High School in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood, she wanted to be a police detective like she saw on TV.
“You know when you come to the scene and you have to figure out what happened and you take the body to the lab?” Miller explained after she got off work one night in November. “That’s what I want to do.”
Last fall when Miller, 19, was a senior, she applied to colleges with criminal justice programs, including Harris Stowe University, a historically black college in St. Louis. She was accepted there, plus Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Some friends got into Harris Stowe, too. They were all going to go together.
But the day Miller’s aunt was supposed to drive her for orientation, she had car trouble. Miller missed orientation.
That’s all it took to convince her to not enroll in college at all.
‘Students going nowhere’
In 2017, there were thousands of students in Illinois just like Miller.
Nine percent of all applicants accepted to a public university in the state didn’t enroll in college anywhere, according to a special report from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. That’s a total of 7,794 applicants. Because the report doesn’t count individuals, students accepted to more than one public university could be counted multiple times.
Administrators across several Illinois schools say it’s a growing problem.
They refer to them as students going nowhere — applicants who don’t show up anywhere for college. Not community college, not an out of state school, not another public university in Illinois. Nowhere.
“That was the number one competition,” said Sol Jensen, who heads enrollment management at Northern Illinois University, where nine percent of its admitted freshmen went nowhere last year. “It wasn’t losing students to out-of-state institutions.”
|% not enrolled anywhere
|# not enrolled anywhere
|All public universities
|Southern Illinois - Carb
|Southern Illinois - Edw
|U of I at Chicago
|U of I at Springfield
|U of I at U-C
|Source: Illinois Board of Higher Education
|*These are 2017 applicants, which could include students who were accepted to multiple universities.
Other schools saw an even larger percentage of students going nowhere. At Northeastern Illinois University, it’s 27 percent of admitted applicants. At Chicago State University, 14 percent went nowhere. These students are often low-income and first generation college students.
As these schools and others grapple with declining enrollment, they are setting their sights on trying to capture these students.
“[It’s] a loss of human capital,” said Governors State University President Elaine Maimon, noting that these students are qualified for college work but never make it to campus. One third of students who were accepted there in the past three years enrolled nowhere, she said.
“We already have a shrinking middle class, and when these students go nowhere that middle class is going to shrink even more.”
‘The moment of truth’
Miller always had her sights set on attending a four-year university.
“That’s really what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to be the first one to go to college.”
During her junior year of high school, she even signed on to work with OneGoal, a non-profit set up to help students just like her. She admits she had started hanging out with the “wrong crowd.” She started skipping class and her grades suffered.
But her counselors at OneGoal helped her turn her grades around and apply for school. When she was accepted to her first college, it felt good. She was excited to go with her friends.
But as August drew closer, doubts began to creep in.
The school was five-and-a-half hours away from her aunt and grandma, who she lived with. Her mom and dad were even farther away. On top of that, she worried she wasn’t ready for college-level work.
“Say I go and get an assignment and I don’t understand?” she said. “I feel like…’why you there’ type thing?’ That make me feel like I shouldn’t be going to college.”
John Dudley, one of Miller’s counselors, says it isn’t surprising that a small hiccup — like car trouble — derailed Miller’s plans to enroll. He says many first-generation college students are often plagued by uncertainty and self-doubt. They’re also stressed by the increasing cost of college, causing many to question whether taking on student loan debt or paying large tuition bills is worth it.
“As you get closer towards mid-August…that’s the moment of truth. Is this going to be for you or isn’t it?” Dudley said. “If that student doesn’t feel supported, that this is a path they can belong to and they can own for themselves…yeah, they’re going to step back and say, ‘wait a minute,’ and pump the brakes because it’s scary.”
By the time that car broke down, then, it didn’t take much for Miller to drop her plans for college completely.
“I got mad and I was like, ‘forget it, I’ll just go to Wisconsin and get a job,’” Miller recalled thinking.
Setting the bar
The issue of students enrolling nowhere is just beginning to gain traction locally as a major problem.
State lawmakers mostly have focused on Illinois ‘brain drain’ problem: Illinois’ top students are leaving the state for college in large numbers, wooed by scholarships from other public universities. The only state where more students leave for college is New Jersey.
To entice them back, state lawmakers this year passed a new academic scholarship called AIM HIGH. The state divided $25 million among the state’s public universities, with schools matching that money and deciding how selective they want their scholarships to be.
The University of Illinois at Chicago set the bar high: a high school valedictorian or a student with nearly perfect grades and high test scores can get full tuition covered all four years.
But many schools set the bar much lower. Their goal: reach students going nowhere. At Northern Illinois, Western Illinois and Governors State, students with a B minus grade point average and average SAT scores qualify for the scholarships.
A full listing of scholarship criteria for each school is available here.
Jensen at Northern Illinois says they want to attract the best and brightest, but they also want to get the qualified students who would otherwise go nowhere.
“We serve all types of students so I think it would be disingenuous if we came out with a scholarship program that was only targeted at the top tier,” Jensen said.
Plus, many Illinois public universities are facing enrollment drops — and a major impediment to enrolling is financial. Each year, there are far more students looking for money for college than the state has available in need-based Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants.
But because AIM HIGH scholarships are limited and based on academic achievement, rather than financial need, they’ll never reach everyone who can’t afford school. The only income requirement is that family income must be below $150,000 for a family of four.
“Rewarding merit means that students who come from low-income backgrounds will most often not be awarded those grants,” said Kyle Westbrook of the Partnership for College Completion, noting that higher-income students tend to perform better on standardized tests. Westbrook’s group works to boost the number of college graduates in Illinois.
The non-profit is urging schools to give the largest AIM HIGH awards to students whose families are least able to pay for college. So far, schools haven’t said they’ll base award amounts on a student’s family income.
‘I’m still going to college’
Miller returned to Chicago from Wisconsin a few months ago. She got a job through a temp agency, filling online orders for a stationery company making $12 an hour. But the commute was too long.
Some of her friends enrolled at Harris Stowe, but she says it’s hard to keep in touch. When she sees them post videos or photos on SnapChat from parties or their dorm room, she doesn’t click on them.
“I don’t watch because I’m going to feel sad because I didn’t go to Harris Stowe,” she said. “I’m supposed to be there right now.”
But Miller is still trying. She was accepted to Harold Washington College, a two-year school, for the semester beginning in January. All that’s left to do is take her placement tests. She’s not as excited about a two-year school as she was about a four-year university but now she just wants to be back in a classroom.
And as time passes, her interests are changing. Now, she wants to become an occupational therapy assistant.
Statistically, Miller has a tough road ahead of her. Just four percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates who don’t immediately enroll in college ultimately graduate, according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
Miller is committed to being part of that 4 percent.
“It’s still going to happen,” she said emphatically. “I’m still going to college.”
More data on where Illinois students are going to college available here.