Stimulated by a Northwest Herald editorial extolling the future of Northern Illinois University, Lakewood bond analyst Steve Willson penned the following:
NIU’s Decline Is Inevitable
On September 20, 2018, the Northwest Herald ran an editorial (“Our View: NIU enrollment declines not irreversible or inevitable“).
In it, they noted that enrollment at NIU has declined for nine consecutive years, that it is down 19% since 2013, and that enrollment declined 4.8% this fall.
Despite this, they concluded,
“This fall’s results from EIU show that continued decline is not inevitable, and that the setbacks that have been suffered are not irreversible if community members and school officials work together.”
Sadly, decline in NIU’s enrollment is inevitable.
Here is the evidence.
The pool of potential in-state college recruits will drop steadily for the next 18 years.
Figures from the Census Bureau show that, in Illinois in 2016:
- the 15-19 age cohort was about 38,500 less than the 20-24 age cohort;
- the 10-14 age cohort was almost 13,000 lower than the 15-19 age cohort;
- the 5-9 age cohort was about 12,800 lower than the 10-14 age cohort;
- the under 5 age cohort was more than 51,000 lower than the 5-9 age cohort.
This means there are only three ways for NIU to increase enrollment:
- young people have to move to Illinois in large numbers;
- a substantially higher percentage of high school graduates have to go to college than go now; or
- NIU has to out-recruit other schools.
Let’s examine these three options one by one.
Will young people start moving to Illinois in large numbers?
The fact is, Illinois is losing population, not gaining, and there is no reason to expect that this trend will reverse sharply in the near future.
Further, the decline in children in younger age cohorts is not unique to Illinois, it is a national phenomenon, so there aren’t excess children in other states to move here.
Immigration isn’t going to fix the problem.
How about higher enrollment percentages?
Given the declining pool of potential students, in order for enrollment at NIU to even remain steady, the enrollment rate would have to climb steadily to 75% in about five years and to almost 80% in fifteen years.
But figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that enrollment has been essentially flat for years, ranging between 66% and 70%.
No one believes college enrollment is going to trend up by 10+ percentage points from the current level.
Can NIU out-compete other schools in attracting students?
NIU has no history of out-competing other schools.
Nor does NIU or the editorial offer any concrete plan to out-compete in the future.
And the fact is that NIU can’t because, simply put, NIU has zero competitive advantage in attracting students versus other public universities; it is your basic, average public university.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad school, just average.
In short, NIU isn’t going to out-compete other schools for students over the long run.
Based on empirical demographic data, we can conclude with an extremely high degree of confidence that enrollment at NIU will continue to decline over the next twenty years.
There may be blips here and there, but the trend is incontrovertible.
I’m an NIU alum, and I wish the facts were different.
But wishing won’t change the facts.