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NIU Today | In response to pandemic, NIU rolls out new strategic enrollment management plan

Two years earlier than expected, university leaders are unveiling NIU’s Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) Plan—version 2.0.

The plan builds on the past successes and strengths of the original 5-year plan, unveiled three years ago, and responds to new pandemic-induced realities, especially related to the experiences and needs of current and future students.

The original plan spurred successful efforts designed to make an NIU degree even more accessible, equitable and affordable. The positive impact is reflected in growing numbers of new and high-achieving students and, prior to the pandemic, positively trending first-year retention rates, total enrollment and reduction of equity gaps.

Increased emphasis on persistence

“While many of the goals and strategies of SEM Plan 2.0 are similar to its predecessor, the new plan notably puts increased emphasis on student persistence, student-campus connections and the mental, physical, social and emotional needs of our current and future students, NIU Executive Vice President and Provost Beth Ingram said.

Under the previous plan, NIU saw an 11.6% increase in new freshmen last fall with an average high school GPA of 3.34. However, retention of fall 2020 first-year students slipped by about 5 percentage points below the pre-pandemic level. The result was a modest dip in NIU enrollment. Indeed, student persistence during the pandemic declined at many institutions nationwide, with underserved and low-income college students disproportionately impacted.

“Switches in learning modalities and personal technology challenges—along with financial, time-management and personal stresses brought on by the pandemic—made learning during the pandemic challenging for our students, particularly freshmen and first-generation students,” Ingram said.

Inclusive process

Created using an inclusive and shared process, the SEM Plan 2.0 is the university’s response to challenges identified by NIU students, faculty and staff.

The SEM Committee is made up of individuals representing a variety of areas across the campus, including from each college. Committee members engaged with student government and other student organizations and leaders. They also worked with faculty and staff in their respective colleges and divisions to better understand students’ challenges and identify solutions.

“We proactively reached out to the campus community and encouraged and received excellent feedback, particularly focused on student success,” said Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications. “It was especially important to hear directly from our students.”

Meeting complex needs

While overarching goals remain similar to those outlined in the original plan, the SEM Plan 2.0 calls for redoubling the university’s focus on:

  • providing a seamless transition to the college experience;
  • ensuring students connect to NIU opportunities, resources and people to help them achieve success; and
  • sustaining a collaborative approach that celebrates the diverse lived experiences that make up the Huskie community.

The plan pays particular attention to coordinated student experiences in and out of the classroom that promotes student success, equity, inclusion and belonging. Strategies address complex needs: delayed learning; lack of engagement; sense of belonging; varied learning styles; navigating the college environment and corresponding expectations; and physical and emotional health.

“Our strategies to address the needs of our diverse student population will require concerted efforts,” said Vernese Edghill Walden, chief officer and vice president for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “This will include high-touch advising, expansion of professional development opportunities for faculty, increased assistance to students to improve their grades and an equity-minded approach to all of our endeavors.”

Making sure students are connected

One priority of the plan is to ensure that all students have multiple solid connections to the NIU campus and a network of support.

“Students who are engaged with faculty, staff and other students are more likely to persist and graduate,” Ingram said.

Coordinated efforts will include:

  • Promotion of student organizations and activities.
  • Creation of a campus-wide messaging campaign on the importance of connecting and supporting students to create a sense of belonging.
  • Leveraging the work of the Greek Life Revitalization Task Force to promote the values ​​associated with belonging to a fraternity or sorority.
  • Communication and implementation of an expanded plan for diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice and belonging to promote inclusive community-building initiatives that engage NIU faculty, staff, students and the community.
  • Expanded opportunities for student leadership development.
  • Deployment of a Huskie First Survey to identify student needs early to connect them promptly to campus support resources.

NIU also will platform leverage its Navigate software to engage students and make sure all who are struggling get the help they need, when they need it. The system facilitates communications with students, early alerts about students who may need academic support and referrals for tutoring and other resources.

Prioritizing student well-being

Additionally, the plan prioritizes the provision of services and programs to meet the mental, physical, social and emotional needs of current and future students. It calls for enhancing the capacity of existing counseling services and providing culturally aware wellness and physical health programming.

“Our students’ well-being is, and always has been, our top priority at NIU,” Ingram said.

The plan also seeks to advance NIU’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center as an avenue to dismantle institutional structural barriers through educational programs and training and through trauma-informed racial healing and restorative justice practices.

While more than 70% of incoming freshmen received merit scholarships last fall, the plan further addresses student financial needs. NIU’s new Office of Student Financial Advising Services will provide enhanced financial advising to students, such as multi- year financial planning. Financial and career advising will be integrated into overall advising practices.

“We expect enhanced financial advising to help lower student loan debt and boost retention,” Jensen said.

Amplifying Huskie Pride

Jensen noted that amplifying Huskie pride is another aim of the SEM Plan 2.0. NIU will create formal brand ambassador programs; leverage student, alumni, faculty and staff influencers; develop new activities to celebrate university successes; and highlight post-graduation data demonstrating the value of an NIU degree.

“The achievements of our students, employees, alumni and university as a whole, including all of our incredible efforts during the disruption pandemic, provide us with much to be proud of,” Jensen said. “We want to leverage our brand, identity and many advocates to celebrate the accomplishments of NIU and, above all, the value of an NIU education.”

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