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Enrollment at the University of Illinois topped 50,000 for the first time this fall.

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URBANA — Enrollment at the University of Illinois pushed above 50,000 for the first time this fall, fueled by a surge in graduate online enrollment and a new program offering free tuition to lower-income state residents.

The record freshman class of 7,655 is the most diverse and academically qualified in the UI’s history and has significantly more students from central and southern Illinois, according to Admissions Director Andrew Borst.

However, the share of in-state freshmen dipped to 74.3 percent, down from 76.8 percent last year.

Total enrollment is now 51,196, up more than 1,800 from last year’s record of 49,339. That includes 33,850 undergraduates, 16,319 graduate students and 1,027 enrolled in professional programs, according to official 10-day enrollment figures. The numbers include online enrollment, though Borst didn’t have a breakdown.

The freshman total is on-campus students only, and beat the previous record of 7,609 set in fall 2018.

Borst said the new Illinois Commitment financial-aid program played a “big role” in driving up the number of freshman and transfer applications by more than 10 percent — and in increasing the diversity of the freshman class. The UI enrolled 1,448 transfer students this fall, the most in more than 20 years.

More than 30 percent of in-state freshmen and transfer students qualified for Illinois Commitment, which was announced in August 2018 as applications opened for the 2019-20 school year. It guarantees free tuition and fees to any admitted student with a family income of $61,000 or less, the median state income.

The university took in a record 43,509 applications, up more than 4,100 from the 39,406 recorded the previous year.

“That allowed us to be more selective and bring in a class that was really strongly academically qualified,” Borst said. “To hit record size, record quality and record diversity all in the same year is great news.”

The university’s enrollment “yield” continued to slide, to 29.8 percent, down from 31.1 percent last year and 31.4 percent in 2017. That’s the percentage of admitted students who end up enrolling at the UI. This year, 25,684 were admitted.

Borst said it’s directly tied to the higher academic profile of the students admitted, who are courted by other universities as well.

This fall 2019 freshman class is the first to have an average ACT score over 29, at 29.3, and compiled an average SAT of 1348 and a core academic GPA of 3.60.

“We had more applications, we had better applications. Even though we feel like we got our share of the best and brightest, there’s still a lot of other students there who have many options ahead of them,” Bost said.

That also affected enrollment numbers for in-state students, he said. The freshman class includes 5,698 Illinois residents, down from 5,847 last year, even though the UI extended more in-state offers than ever before (14,056). This year’s tally is still higher than the 73.3 percent recorded in fall 2017, Borst noted.

The number of freshmen from central and southern Illinois — areas south of Interstate 80 — rose by 18 percent, from 764 to 898, also likely driven by Illinois Commitment, Borst said. A total of 234 were from Champaign County, 50 more than last year.

The UI made a special push downstate — through paid advertisements, billboards, targeted social-media messages and movie-theater ads — to get the word out about Illinois Commitment, he said.

“I do think it was a factor in driving our diversity for first-generation students, underrepresented students and geographic diversity as well,” Borst said.

With UI tuition and fees totaling $15,000 to $20,000 a year, cost has been a “major barrier” for low- and middle-income families, Borst said. The fact that both applications and enrollment were up for targeted groups “makes me think that people were responding to the marketing.”

He noted that 24.7 percent of freshmen are first-generation college students and 23.2 percent are from underrepresented groups. That includes 1,144 Hispanic students, up from 1,093 in 2018; and 521 African Americans, up from 475 last year, which Borst called a “promising” increase after a three-year decline.

Enrollment in online graduate programs went up 11.2 percent, or 1,644 students, mostly in online programs, including the iMBA and master’s programs in accounting and computer science.

Freshman international enrollment was up slightly, at 949. China again led the pack at 569, followed by India (137), Korea (93) and Taiwan (33).

Across the UI system, 88,861 students are enrolled, a new record, up from 85,597 a year ago.

Enrollment at the UI Chicago increased 5.4 percent to 33,390, also a record. The numbers reflect the addition of 1,066 students from John Marshall Law School, which moved to the UI Chicago this fall. Without that addition, overall enrollment systemwide grew by 2.6 percent.

At the UI Springfield, freshman enrollment grew 18 percent to 313, but total enrollment was down 6.6 percent, to 4,275. Officials blamed the decrease on a drop in part-time students.

The system is on pace to meet its five-year goal of topping 93,600 students by the fall of 2021, officials said.

Illinois residents make up more than 80 percent of undergraduates enrolled this fall across the UI system. The UI has made in-state recruiting a priority to stem an “outmigration” of high school seniors to colleges in other states.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).