By Stephanie Choporis
Students and professors at Northeastern Illinois University say the school’s student housing proposal is being used to boost dwindling enrollment and will change the demographic of those it has traditionally served.
“They just have plans to make NEIU a different type of school that has a different type of student that fosters a different type of learning environment,” said 25-year-old senior, Viki Peer.
The reaction comes shortly after the university’s March 2 announcement that its first student residence hall will be constructed on a portion of campus parking lots.
The school’s chief communications officer, Mike Dizon, said NEIU is the only public university in Illinois that does not offer student housing and that the building will hold approximately 400 students. While he said specifics, such as number of floors, are not yet available, he said the school hopes students can start moving in during the fall of 2016.
The university also plans to build residence halls in the 3400 block of Bryn Mawr Avenue and has filed eminent domain proceedings against property owners who have not sold their land to the university. This has caused controversy among owners and neighbors in the area.
Dizon said implementing student housing will make the university more appealing to prospective students who have previously eliminated NEIU from their pool of choices due to a lack of housing.
“We know from our admissions officers that there are a number of very well-qualified and also very interested students who would like to pursue a degree at Northeastern but end up opting for other alternatives simply because they’re looking for a more ‘traditional’ college experience,” Dizon said.
For the NEIU administration, Dizon said the definition of “traditional” involves the opportunity to live on campus.
“I think Northeastern has been needing and wanting to become a traditional school for a very long time,” said Nicholas Martinez, a 22-year-old sophomore and Illinois Board of Higher Education student representative. “I feel like now it is almost essential for Northeastern to become a traditional college in order for its survival as a university.”
Dizon said he could not provide exact numbers for students who reject NEIU based on housing offerings, but assistant professor of sociology, Marcos Feldman, who opposes the housing plan, said he thinks the aim of residence halls is to improve enrollment.
“The student housing project has been justified as a way to improve the rate at which students stay in the university and graduate,” Feldman said.
In recent years, NEIU’s enrollment peaked at about 11,700 students in the fall of 2010 but dropped to approximately 9,700 in the spring of 2014. For full-time undergraduates who chose to stay at Northeastern after freshman year, percentages were at their lowest in 10 years.
Feldman said the administration thinks adding dorms would stabilize enrollment trends because doing so would target a different student demographic: someone who possibly is wealthier, hails from Chicago’s suburbs and falls within a more “traditional” student age.
“We’re sort of a different type of university,” Dizon said.
While NEIU does serve those who apply for college immediately after high school, he said many students are in their mid-20s and hold part-time jobs. He said some even have families of their own. U.S. News also ranked the 2013-2014 NEIU student body as one of the most ethnically diverse in the Midwest.
Feldman implied that these extra commitments make NEIU students more vulnerable to economic recessions. During a downturn, he said they might need to cut back on classes or find a job, which could affect their ability to attend school for a semester.
Peer said she thinks the school well-serves students who might “slip through the cracks” at other universities and that faculty members go beyond their job descriptions to help them achieve their needs.
“And those students who are there just really want to be there,” she said. “They want to learn, and, you know, they’re invested in their education. They know what they want to do and they’re at NEIU to make it happen.”
But if NEIU starts adding more traditional students to its population, Feldman said he wondered whether they would be placed in the same classes with current students.
“How does their background and their demands and expectations about the university conflict with the expectations that non-traditional students bring?” he asked. “You know, they have a different set of needs in terms of their schedules and flexibility and stuff.”
However, Dizon said the university will continue to target all students, including those it has previously served. He said the addition of student housing would simply give applicants another reason to consider NEIU.
“Our students are accustomed to living in a diverse community, interacting with students who are very much not like them,” he said. “And I give our students a lot of credit and that I expect them to be able to embrace this new group of students just like they embrace one another and all of our differences.”
But Peer said she thinks the school should instead be investing more in its current type of students, such as offering more night classes, than seeking new groups.
“I just think that would be so much more viable,” she said.