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URBANA — What’s there to know about the University of Illinois’ newest freshman class? It’s the biggest class on record, with more than 8,000 students for the first time in university history, featuring gains in three of the UI’s four biggest colleges — Liberal Arts and Sciences, Grainger Engineering and Gies Business.

But the class is a downturn in several diversity metrics: About 20.1 percent of freshmen are considered under-represented minorities, lower than the last five UI classes, while the class’ percentage of first-generation college students — also 20.1 percent — is the lowest since fall 2012.

The freshmen entering the UI this fall have the lowest African American representation, by total students and percentage of the class, since 2014. This year, 448 African American students accepted UI offers of admission, making up 5.4 percent of the freshman class, down from 521 in fall 2019 (6.8 percent) and 501 (6.7 percent) last fall.

“We admitted a record number (1,253) of African American students,” UI Director of Undergraduate Admissions Andy Borst said. “But our number of African American students is lower than we anticipated, and we think that it’s likely due to the impact of COVID-19.”

The UI’s best guess, Borst said, is the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 that Black applicants and other under-represented minority students reported in their application data, from familial and personal impacts to internet interruptions during lockdowns.

“We won’t really know for sure until November, because then we’ll be able to send our data to the National Student Clearinghouse and see where students ended up enrolling,” he said.

A few other demographic categories grew for the freshman class, namely the proportion of domestic students who identify as Asian — 26.2 percent, up from 23.1 last fall and 21.1 the year prior — and the numbers of non-Illinois residents and international students who accepted offers of admission.

The percentage of in-state students, at 70.1, is the lowest on record, but that’s not from non-residents and international students “displacing” them. The UI made more offers of admission to in-state students than ever before this cycle, and in-state recruitment is still its primary focus, Borst said.

“We admitted fewer international students, but our acceptance rate, or the number of students who accepted their offer of admission, was above what we were anticipating for their yield rate,” Borst said.

There was an unexpected increase in enrollment among Indian students, with 252 freshmen or about 3 percent of the freshman class hailing from the country, exceeding 2017’s record of 178 freshmen from India.

“We’ve been focused on India for the last four years knowing it was likely going to be the biggest growth area for international students,” Borst said. “This year’s number is a product of the country’s population, the number of Indian students traveling to the U.S. and the number applying to the U.S. that had the academic credentials for admission.”

Driving some of the non-resident growth for the Class of 2025 was California, which brought in 459 freshmen, or about 5.5 percent of the class, and New Jersey, with 152 students, nearly double last year’s total from the state.

The number of freshmen who studied in California surpassed the number of Chinese freshmen who studied in non-U.S. high schools, at 449. For more than the last decade, China has only trailed Illinois as the biggest feeder territory for UI students.

That said, counting the 184 Chinese students who graduated from U.S. high schools, China still boasts a larger student count for the new freshman class.

The UI’s two largest colleges, LAS and Engineering, showed the biggest growth in freshman enrollment.

About 32.3 percent of the Class of 2025 is enrolled in the College of LAS, one percentage point higher than last year, while 24.3 percent are in engineering, up 2.6 percent from last class.

The only other colleges with growing enrollment in both raw numbers and percentage of the freshman class were business (up to 8.1 percent from 7.6 last year) and the School of Information Sciences (up to 1.1 percent of the freshman class).

“The growth is an indication of the academic quality of those programs,” Borst said. “STEM-related fields is where we’re seeing the undergrad interest and the applications hit first. It’s not surprising that that’s where students are applying to — the students that accepted was above what we expected as well.”

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