URBANA — The University of Illinois received 110 more applications from African-American students and admitted 22 more this fall than last year.
Still, fewer black students wound up enrolling: 475, compared with 501 in fall 2017 and 548 the year before, according to numbers announced last week — though the 2018 total doesn't include 115 multiracial students who also identified as black.
Why the drop? UI officials hope to find out more through a survey of the 712 applicants who declined the UI's offer.
Based on past experience, it likely has a lot to do with finances and a declining pool of Illinois high school students, both overall and African-Americans specifically, said UI Admissions Director Andrew Borst.
Demographic data tracked by the Office of Admissions show that, while the number of Hispanic and Asian-American high-school-age students in Illinois is stable or on the rise, the numbers are dropping for both white and black students. Some projections, based on birth rates, show the state's population of 18-year-olds declining by 15 percent between 2012 and 2028.
Coupled with that is a net loss of college-bound seniors to other states where universities with falling enrollments or smaller student populations actively recruit top Illinois students with lucrative financial aid packages.
"We yielded fewer, but we don't know if that's a financial decision or students are getting better offers," Borst said.
For instance, the UI admitted more African-American students to the engineering program this year and provided strong financial-aid packages, Borst said. But engineering is more expensive — tuition and fees top $20,000 in-state — and students could be getting better aid packages elsewhere, he said.
"Cost is a huge factor," said Nathan Stephens, director of the UI's Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center, though he also knows black students who have chosen Illinois over higher-priced private schools.
He said UI enrollment isn't where he'd like it to be, but he's not surprised by the drop given the population declines and increased competition.
Past admissions surveys and historical trends indicate that minority students are more cost-sensitive than the general student body, Borst said.
That's why the school is eager to see if the new Illinois Commitment program will make a dent, though it's not geared specifically to underrepresented students. Starting next fall, the program guarantees free tuition and fees for any student who qualifies for admission and comes from a household with an annual income below $61,000, the state median.
Borst points to historical data about freshman classes back through the 1960s, which show increases in black enrollment following initiatives to recruit or support students from underrepresented groups.
In 1968, the first year of the "Project 500" recruiting program, there were 565 new black students on campus — 444 freshmen, 60 transfer students, and 61 who identified as multiracial, Borst said.
But the next year, the freshman number dropped to 227, and it fell to 198 in 1972.
It remained below 300 — with two exceptions — until 1985, when it began to tick up following the creation of the President's Award Program, Borst noted. The program provides $5,000 annual scholarships — and $10,000 for honors students — to talented high school seniors from underrepresented groups.
The number of black freshmen gradually improved, topping 500 for the first time in 1996 and reaching a high of 601 in 2003, before starting to slide again as UI tuition rose. From 2000 to 2010, tuition increases averaged 9.8 percent a year, Borst said.
The number of black freshmen eventually slipped below 500 again but rebounded after a new chancellor's scholarship program was launched in 2014, reaching 548 in 2016.
"The factors that have influenced African-American enrollment at Urbana-Champaign have been money in 1968, money in 1983, lack of money in the 2000s" and money in 2014, Borst said.
"We're facing a declining population; we're facing increased competition for that population," he said. "If we want more, we have to contribute more toward scholarships."
Affordability an issue
Borst and Stephens believe Illinois Commitment will help. Stephens said some of his friends' children have decided to open their own businesses or get certificates in particular fields rather than borrow to pay for four years of college.
"It's one thing to get into the university. It's another to be able to afford it," Borst said.
On the plus side, this year's freshman class puts Illinois at the top of the Big Ten in terms of diversity, both in percentages and actual numbers: first in Hispanic enrollment, at 15.6 percent, and second for African-American enrollment, at 7.8 percent, behind Michigan State with 8.9 percent.
The UI's retention and graduation rates for underrepresented students also compare well to other schools, said Kevin Pitts, vice provost for undergraduate education.
But challenges remain. A large drop in high school enrollment, and thus the college-bound population, is projected after 2025, partly because the birth rate dropped after 2008 during the Great Recession, Borst said.
'A national approach'
To brace for that, colleges are plotting new enrollment pipelines, recruiting in new areas of the country where population is growing, he said.
The UI now has regional admissions staff in California, Texas and the Southeast — one near San Francisco, one outside Los Angeles, one near Dallas and one near Atlanta covering Florida and Georgia, Borst said. Another employee formerly based in Boston is now covering New York and New Jersey.
"We're trying to have more of a national approach. Still, our main focus is on Illinois," he said.
The admissions office has four staff members in Chicago, and it does well in terms of "market share" of applicants from underrepresented backgrounds there and in Champaign County, he said.
Still, there are 86 other colleges and universities with recruiters based in the Chicago area, Borst said.
For many years, Illinois was the "default" option for talented high school seniors in the state, Pitts said. Now, "regional boundaries are not what they used to be," he said, with students researching other schools online and universities like Alabama and Missouri offering deeply discounted tuition to top Illinois students.
Stephens said the University of Missouri had a pipeline of students from Chicago when he was an administrator there.
"Chicago was the No. 1 recruiting place for black students. St. Louis was second," he said.
To bolster its recruiting, the UI works closely with community organizations in Chicago, offers bus trips to campus for students from certain Chicago high schools and has specific visit days for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
It's also asked African-American students on campus to reach out to their high schools to recruit younger classmates.
"We feel like we've been doing a lot of the right things," Pitts said. "We have grown our financial aid packages. We think that's helping. Illinois Commitment is the next step.
"Of course, when you see the overall numbers go down, it doesn't feel like it's helping."
Through the years
African-American freshman enrollment at the University of Illinois for the past seven years: