Illinois Wesleyan University has its largest freshmen class in at least five years.
University President Eric Jensen said overall enrollment is up about 100 students from last year. Last year the 1,700 total was the lowest count since 1988.
The stability this year, Jensen said, came without compromising quality.
"The students have the same high test scores, the same grade point averages as always. But they are much more diverse. We have something like a third of our domestic class, self identified as non-majority," said Jensen.
Jensen said that shift in diversity came just in the last couple years as IWU concentrated on that element of its recruiting.
Jensen said the McLean County Scholarship program offering extra tuition breaks for Twin City students has also paid off.
"It's actually explicitly a reaction to a lot of the brain drain things that we have been seeing. It's not just Chicago. It's not just Illinois. It's this community where we want to help people stay," said Jensen.
Jensen said they usually get about 25 freshmen from the Twin City area. This year 39 enrolled.
He said the ability to offer those extra scholarship dollars came from more than $700,000 in donations from the community. Jensen said he would like to see the McLean County Scholarship program stabilize at about $500,000 per year.
It's early going on new programs Illinois Wesleyan University is offering, but Jensen says there is interest in the majors added last year: biochemistry, health and fitness management, marketing and neuroscience.
"You put in place and then wait to see what happens. To me the proof in the pudding is four years down the road, how many diplomas have that written on them. And I think that we're encouraged with the interest that we have seen in those majors," said Jensen.
Adding courses of study is one of the ways IWU is coping with a several year decline in enrollment, partly reversed this year, and the coming downturn in high school graduates following the great recession.
Not only did homebuilding and mortgage foreclosure issues go in the tank in the U.S. following the recession, Jensen said the birth rate declined.
"The number of college students 18 years down the road in 2024 and 2025 we know is going to turn down. And a lot of what we are doing is positioning ourselves for what we know is going to happen. Demography is destiny," said Jensen.
The hit in the post-recession birth rate in the U.S. came on top of a more general gradual decline nationwide in the number of high school graduates that was linked to the end of the baby boom generation.
Jensen says Illinois Wesleyan has broadened its recruiting efforts from regional to national. This year IWU students come from 34 states including the first student from New Hampshire, he said.
The IWU president said his institution would be happy to eventually go to about 2,000 students, but will not make dramatic changes to get there fast.
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