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Strong in number, talent and diversity, NIU’s incoming class stands out

September 15, 2021

As much as the size of NIU’s 2021 freshman class is notable, so are the many characteristics that make up this new class of Huskies.

This fall’s freshman class has the second highest high school GPA average among entering freshman in more than a decade at NIU. The university also welcomed the most diverse freshman class in NIU’s history, seeing a sixth straight year of increased African American enrollment, as well as a growing number of first-generation students.

The number of students living on campus (3,694) is at a five-year high. And incoming freshmen—representing a widely diverse pool of recipients from near and far—earned more scholarship money than ever.

These positive enrollment trends and others, gathered from the official census on the 10th day of attendance, send a clear signal, university leaders say. New programs and strategies designed to make an NIU degree even more accessible, equitable and affordable are doing just that.

Despite the ongoing major disruption of a global pandemic, NIU continues to draw students strong in number, talent and diversity.

“We’re leveraging our high quality academic programs, refining our equity-based identity and differentiating NIU among other institutions in our region,” said Omar Ghrayeb, vice provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs. “Our success in recruiting new freshmen demonstrates the effectiveness of our multi-year Strategic Enrollment Management Plan as we eliminate unnecessary barriers throughout a student’s educational path.”

“The university is proud to bring in growing numbers of new, diverse and high-achieving students,” he said, “and is passionately committed to supporting Huskies in an academic culture that ensures student success.”

Total freshman enrollment for fall 2021 increased to 2,285, up 238 students over last fall. The 12% jump represents the largest year-over-year percentage increase in the freshman class in more than two decades.

This new class of Huskies comes with a strong academic profile.

The average high school GPA of the Fall 2021 freshman class is 3.34, and the percentage of new enrolled freshmen with GPAs of 4.0 represent over 16% of the incoming enrolled class (an increase of 17% over last year). The number of enrolled students with a GPA of 3.9 or higher increased 18 percent over last year.

Along with strength in academics, even more distinguishes this year’s Huskies.

Students who are the first in their families to go to college are in good company at NIU, where 57% of new freshmen are first-generation college students

While colleges and universities across the country, including in Illinois, have seen declining enrollment rates for Black students, NIU recorded its sixth straight year of increased African American enrollment in the freshman class. This year, 37.6% of entering freshmen are Black (up 3% points), the highest that figure has been in university history. Asian student enrollment is at 4%, while Hispanic enrollment accounts for 21% of the incoming class. NIU is working toward a goal of becoming a designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) within the next several years.

“We became strategic in 2015 about creating a campus culture that champions equal outcomes for all students and celebrates diversity as a key strength,” said Vernese Edghill-Walden, chief diversity officer and vice president for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.These efforts—combined with the university’s long-standing tradition of providing access and opportunities for students from all walks of life—are creating large-scale, meaningful and lasting change.”

More than 70% of incoming freshmen are receiving renewable merit scholarships. Of those, 64% of are students of color, compared to 54% of merit scholarship recipients in fall 2020.

Talented students from inside and outside Illinois are being drawn to NIU.

Since 2016, NIU has more than doubled enrollment of first-year students from Chicago Public Schools. This fall, the number of students from Chicago Public Schools grew from 541 to 603, an increase of 11.5%.

And, for the first time in recent years, NIU enrollment of U.S. students from outside of Illinois exceeded 1,000. NIU’s freshmen represent at least 26 states, while the entire student population now represents all 50 U.S. states.

University leaders attribute the positive enrollment trends to successful planning and recruitment strategies, as well as the university’s new test-free admission and merit scholarship process.

Recognizing that students’ hard work in high school is reflected in their grades, NIU became one of the nation’s first to implement the process. All incoming students are now automatically considered for NIU Merit Scholarships when they apply to NIU based solely on the GPA from their high school transcripts.

“Our new test-free admissions and merit scholarships policies support our vision of advancing the upward mobility of our students by broadening opportunities for underrepresented students, including students of color, first-generation college students and those from low-income households,” said Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications. “The impact of these efforts is being felt this fall.”

The university also eliminated undergraduate application fees and joined the Common App in August 2020. The Common App gives students a way to apply to NIU and multiple other colleges with one online application.

Because of these efforts, as well as enhanced recruitment, NIU is reaching broader audiences.

“The strength of these enrollment numbers demonstrate not only that students are finding value here, but also that they’re connecting with the university,” Jensen said. “During a challenging time, as COVID-19 limited our abilities to connect with students in person, we pivoted and implemented creative strategies to attract students through numerous virtual opportunities. We worked hard to foster relationships and continue to tell NIU’s story.”