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New policies help bring diversity to incoming class

October 4, 2021

In its first full year of utilizing test-free criteria for admissions and merit scholarships, NIU has attracted the most diverse incoming class in university history.

Nearly 70% of all incoming freshmen identify as persons of color, with 38% identifying as Black, 21.5% as Hispanic, 4% as Asian and 6% as “other.” The remaining 30% identified as white. Among incoming students, 57% were the first in their family to attend college.

“As a university that is committed to equity and inclusion, we are thrilled that we are becoming an institution of choice for all students,” said NIU President Dr. Lisa C. Freeman. “This demonstrates that our efforts to make NIU accessible and affordable to all students are working. A diverse campus is a healthier, more vibrant campus, so we want a student body that reflects the demographics of the region we serve – in terms of race, gender and socio-economic background.”

While other universities, in Illinois and nationally, are lagging in their efforts to attract minority students, NIU has had success in recent years. This fall, the number of African American students in the incoming class increased for the sixth straight year. After years of climbing steadily, enrollment of LatinX students was mostly flat.

A number of changes in policies and procedures have positioned NIU well to welcome high-performing students of color.

At the top of that list was NIU’s decision to become one of the first public universities in the nation to remove ACT and SAT scores from consideration when evaluating students for admission and for merit aid. The change was made in response to many years of data – nationally and at NIU – that clearly demonstrated that high school GPA is a better predictor of college success than standardized tests.

“What we learned was that, very often, test scores were more indicative of family income – including whether a student could afford SAT or ACT prep classes – than how well they might do in college,” said Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communication.

With the removal of that barrier – along with the adoption of the Common App and elimination of the application fee – NIU saw a significant jump in applications across the board, including Chicago Public Schools and other parts of the region with large numbers of students of color.

That change is credited with helping to boost the academic profile of this year’s freshmen class, which enters with a class GPA of 3.34, the second highest in a decade. Bolstering that number was a 17% increase in the number of students with a high school GPA of 4.0 and an 18% increase in those with a GPA of 3.9 or better.

“It would appear that we have opened the doors to a lot of talented, qualified students for whom those tests were a barrier,” Jensen said.

Removing standardized tests from merit aid calculations also had a significant impact. More than 70% of incoming freshmen are receiving renewable merit scholarships this year. Of those, 64% of are students of color, compared to 54% of merit scholarship recipients in fall 2020.

“Not only does that better align with the makeup of the incoming class, but it also means those students, as they maintain their GPA, are eligible for four years of support. That should significantly increase their likelihood of graduating,” Dr. Freeman said.

Those types of changes, and others in recent years, have contributed to NIU’s reputation as a place where students of color can thrive, said NIU Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden.

“We are striving to build an inclusive a community where all people feel valued, where they are recognized and they see themselves. We want to be able to know that they belong here, that they can thrive here and that they can live and learn here. That is something we have worked very hard at in recent years, and the word is getting out,” Edghill-Walden said. “It’s not enough to just get students through the door; we are committed to helping them get across the stage at graduation and look forward to their success as proud Huskie alumni.”

This year’s incoming class also boasts geographic diversity, with students from 26 states. NIU has representatives from all 50 states in the overall student body.

Diversity, whether it be racial, geographic, economic or gender-based, enriches campus, Edghill-Walden said.

“With diversity, students gain exposure to new ideas, new perspectives on issues and a greater appreciation for the necessity of being able to work side by side with people of different backgrounds, not just on campus, but for the rest of their lives,” she said.

That ability to function in a diverse environment is becoming increasingly important. According to a Brookings Institution analysis of 2020 census data, children of color now, for the first time, comprise more than half (53%) of the nation’s total youth population.