IC’s innovative approach highlighted on national stage
A recent article in the Detroit Free Press explores the growth of Illinois College over the past decade.
We've gotten a lot better in talking about the value you get from coming here.
Since 2014, Illinois College’s enrollment has grown 19.1% — from 965 students to 1,150. IC is one of the few small colleges in the Midwest to experience such growth. A recent article in the Detroit Free Press explores why IC has thrived while other colleges are closing. The full piece, written by reporter David Jesse and featured on several news sites, is available here.
A new approach
Barbara Farley admits she didn't know much about Illinois College when she arrived on campus in 2013 to take over as president.
Enrollment had been slanting up in recent years, but more needed to be done. The college, like all other small colleges, is heavily reliant on tuition dollars for survival. Growing enrollment means growing finances. Shrinking enrollment means it's time to get out the budget ax.
"We needed to build capacity, to shift the way we worked," Farley said. "Do we have the processes we need? I concluded we didn't. We had hard work to do that was going to take us years to accomplish."
One of the biggest questions facing Farley and the college seemed simple — what was the college's identity?
She began to take steps to answer that, including working on the curriculum. But more than just programs needed to change.
"The culture in higher education is to retain what we were doing," she said. "We had to change. We have to keep evolving."
The school looked for new programs to add — and, in some cases, what to kill. It meant thinking about reallocating resources. That's not always popular, especially with faculty and staff affected by those changes.
The effort was driven by hopes of getting new pipelines of students flowing in.
"We choose to find new markets (for students) in our programmatic offerings," said Evan Wilson, dean of admissions and student financial services and a 2001 Illinois College grad.
The college isn't adding just anything.
"We're a liberal arts college, so there are some programs that don't make sense for us," Wilson said.
Additions to the program included agribusiness, which made sense because of the college's rural location. Launched in 2017, the program now has more than 50 students in it. The college also held off on adding a full-scale nursing program until MacMurray, which had a strong nursing program, closed. Illinois College swooped in, hiring faculty from the shuttered school to get the program up and running rapidly. IC saw 27 students transfer from Mac to either pursue or finish their nursing degree.
Farley said the board was willing to spend money quickly because of the potential return on investment.
"I think we've been successful because we've been nimble," she said.
The college made recruiting a major point of emphasis.
"Admissions isn't siloed away from everyone else on campus," Farley said. "Everybody has a responsibility for admissions."
That means coaches and heads of various programs have recruitment goals and work hand-in-hand with the admissions office. Wilson said the goal is to develop relationships with students before they step on campus.
"We're asking (potential students), 'What is your fear about college?' " he said. "If they say, 'fitting in, making friends,' for example, we say here's the things we do to make it easy for you to make friends."
He knows the sticker price for the school — $34,000 per year for tuition — can scare recruits, even if hardly anyone on campus pays that, thanks to tuition discounts and scholarships. Instead of focusing on the price, the college is trying to talk about something else.
"We've gotten a lot better in talking about the value you get from coming here," he said.
Change never ends
On a bright sunny fall day, Layne Gregory, a senior, is leading a reporter on a tour of campus. She's talking about the history of the school, pointing out the study resources, the cool spots to hang out. It's the same spiel she gives potential students and their parents when they come to visit — with one exception. Normally, she'd also ask those in her group about what they wanted to study, what professors they were meeting with, what coach was talking to them.
As Wilson said, it's about those pipelines.
"Our yield on these students is better because they have built an affinity for the college through relationships. It's easy to just look at the admissions office and say go get more students, but it's much better if the whole college is involved," he said.
Enrollment was at 965 students in 2014. In 2020, it was 1,150. That's 19.1% growth, making Illinois College one of only a few small colleges in the Midwest to stand out in such a way.
"We are trying to be very nimble," Farley said. "We have to pay attention to leading indicators of where the market is, not lagging indicators. We're paying attention to the inquiries (potential students) are making — what are they asking us if we have?
"That doesn't mean everything works. You have to be willing to cut your losses."
Farley said the college is being market-driven while still recognizing its liberal arts tradition.
While Farley is detailing the changes that have been made and the growth of the college, she's sitting in a room where portraits of the college's previous presidents hang. She glances up and points them out.
"From the brink of collapse to the college's heyday, it's all in this room," she said. "Our mission hasn't changed. It's not any different than when Beecher was president. The question for us is regardless of what we are teaching, are we infusing that field with the broad study that is the key characteristic of a liberal arts education?"