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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

ISU Enrollment Steady Despite COVID-19 Concerns

Watterson Towers residence hall at ISU
Enrollment numbers at Illinois State University do not reflect pandemic-related uncertainty, with a healthy count of new freshmen and a bump in graduate students.

Illinois State University admissions officials said pandemic-related fears of a precipitous decline in enrollment did not materialize, with total enrollment falling by less than 1% from the previous year.

Jana Albrecht, ISU’s associate vice president of enrollment management, said her office did not hear a lot of gap-year talk from students, contrary to media reports about the nationwide higher education landscape, though a detailed analysis will happen later.

Freshman enrollment is 3,353. That is down several hundred students from last year's first-year class-- which was the largest in three decades--but is still higher than 2017 numbers.

  • 20,720 - 2020
  • 20,878 - 2019
  • 20,635 - 2018

Albrecht said the pandemic heightened trends common to other years.
“There was probably more of an emphasis on finances and families not knowing what was going to happen with their own position or their own jobs which translated, we believe, into more students going to community colleges, about 200 for us,” said Albrecht.

Albrecht said those students probably are still in the ISU pipeline, based on conversations with the prospective population.

ISU did see a decline in enrollment among students in the bottom two family income categories. She said that may be related to the pandemic’s effect on the economy.

The coronavirus-driven recession is not all bad news, though. Traditionally, economic downturns result in higher college enrollment numbers, and Albrecht said there is evidence of that in this year’s numbers.

“We did see a 4% spike in our graduate students. There are people in the community and workforce that have decided to go to graduate school. What are you going to do in a gap year if there are not additional jobs?” said Albrecht.

Pandemic-related concerns also may have kept more high school grads in their home communities. Albrecht said ISU’s contingent of students from McLean County students rose about 2%.

“There’s a security in feeling that if something goes wrong I can get home quickly and my parents can get to me quickly. That happens when you are in the middle of a pandemic. You want family closer,” said Albrecht.

ISU administrators said they also are pleased at other indicators, including higher-than-usual student retention rates; ISU has exceeded national retention averages for most of the last decade.

ISU’s student diversity continued to rise as well, with the third-largest freshmen diversity contingent in the last 20 years, said Albrecht. That followed last year’s mark of the largest cohort of diverse freshman students in 33 years; 31% of this year’s freshman class comes from traditionally underrepresented groups.

International student enrollment held nearly even despite concerns over travel restrictions.

ISU student academic qualifications were steady. Albrecht said ACT scores maintained an average of about 24 and the honors class was the second largest on record.

“Our Presidential and University Scholars, we almost doubled. Those are our highest-achieving students who are very active in their communities and promise to be active in this community as well,” said Albrecht. 

“We begin the 2020-2021 academic year in a world changed by COVID-19,” said President Larry Dietz. “Illinois State’s strong fall enrollment figures attest to the university’s commitment to providing an excellent educational experience and individualized attention, even during the most challenging circumstances.”

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

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