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Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018 12:05 am

Unwelcoming U.S. tone may add to UIS enrollment woes


A recent decline in enrollment at University of Illinois Springfield may in part be a symptom of dramatic drop in graduate and international enrollment throughout the country. “One of the factors causing those numbers to go down is a perception that the U.S. has recently become less welcoming to international students coming in the country to study,” said Fernando Planas, admissions director for UIS. “So they are looking at going elsewhere and there has been increased competition from other countries, in particular Australia, the UK and Canada – they have been much more aggressive in pursuing some of those students.”

According to a recent report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of Illinois system has responded to a drop in enrollment by proposing to maintain a tuition freeze, which has been in place since 2014.  U of I president Timothy L Killeen was quoted in the Chronicle as saying that the freeze was intended to “help keep doors of opportunity open for Illinois students and hold down costs to keep them here at home to study.”

According to Planas, the Springfield campus saw an 8.7 percent decrease in campus enrollment in fall 2017 (enrollment for 2017 was 4,956 full-time or equivalent students). “More people enroll in the fall,” he said. “Usually we don’t get a lot of freshman students starting in the spring, although it looks like we are going to have a slight increase in the number of freshmen for this spring.”

Planas explained that there are several factors which have impacted enrollment at public universities throughout Illinois, chief among them the extended budget crisis which was resolved last July. “That had the effect of creating some anxiety among the public,” he said, noting that media coverage of the crisis cast doubts on the financial stability of schools as well as the reliability of scholarships.

“Some folks also are looking at MAP awards,” Planas continued. The Monetary Award Program (MAP), administered by the Illinois Student Affairs Commission, provides grants, which do not need to be repaid, to Illinois residents who attend approved Illinois colleges and demonstrate financial need.  “The amount of available MAP money wasn’t known – or even if it was going to be available – until pretty late in the year.”  In light of that insecurity, he suggested that some cost-conscious parents and students across Illinois might choose to avoid transportation and room and board costs by attending schools closer to home.

Another factor identified by Planas is an overall trend of Illinois residents leaving the state over the last seven to 10 years. “This has meant fewer applicants applying to the various colleges and universities in the state, and the population of high school seniors going down.”

Planas also believes that uncertainty about Illinois’ financial situation has led some students who would normally have looked to state universities to opt for out-of-state schools instead. “I’ve heard from counselors and from parents and others who have told me they were looking for other options, including out of state,” he said.

There are a number of other issues that are beyond the control of any school administration, including recent changes to tax laws in India, which no longer allow for tuition to be written off. “We’ve also heard from some of our students from India that safety concerns are an issue,” he said, citing recent media reports of violence against Indian students.  

There is reason for optimism, however. “For fall 2018, our application numbers have gone up,” Planas said. “Freshman application numbers are up right now by about 38 percent. It’s still early in the admissions cycle to know how many more students that will mean, but those are encouraging indicators. We’re hopeful that we can stabilize and then continue as we had been before the budget crisis, where we were on an upward trend and we were growing our enrollment steadily.”

Meanwhile, UIS is working to increase outreach and recruitment efforts. “We’ve added some additional staff, we’ve tried to increase our attendance at college fairs and high school and community college visits,” Planas said. “We are trying to do more to let people know we are a good option here. We are also working very hard with our marketing department.”

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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