In the spring of 2007, nearly 9,800 undergraduate students were attending classes at Western Illinois University's Macomb campus. Only 8,000 were enrolled this past spring. The leaders of the university are currently working on plans to bring enrollment back up.
Filling out college applications is a time-honored tradition for high school seniors looking to further their education.
Western is actively working to make sure more of those applications are mailed to its admissions department. They start the recruitment process by sending out pennants to high schools to make students aware of the university.
Director of Admissions Andy Borst says they also have programs that send high school students to campus. Some include the Discover Western program, in which students and parents tour the campus. They also pay for an accepted student's train ticket for an overnight visit.
"In some ways, it's like buying a house without ever going into the house or without ever seeing the sticker price. We know that if a student comes on campus, they're about 50% more likely to enroll versus if we accept a student and they've never been to campus, the chances of them enrolling drop to about 15%," Borst says.
Borst also says competition from other schools, out-of-state included, make it tough for students. Colleges in neighboring states are offering in-state tuition to Illinois students, especially those with outstanding grade point averages and high ACT scores.
Western's declining enrollment has forced the university to increase tuition by nearly 3%. Borst says he is more than aware of what an increase like that can do to student recruiting efforts, and his office is trying to get out ahead of it.
"We're trying to be as up front with financial aid offers as we can. Because of the way that our information structure is set up, we are able to get financial aid packages out much sooner than other institutions," Borst says.
However, even if the prospective student is tailor-made for the university, sometimes the pennants, tours, and financial aid offers are not enough.
Grace Merrett recently graduated from Macomb High School, and has been a Macomb resident her entire life. Her father works at Western, therefore she is more than familiar with the campus.
But Merrett says she does not feel like the university reached out to her.
"They never really sent me any follow up things. Like after I was admitted at school, they never sent me anything like scholarship opportunities," says Merrett.
She also says how important that was to her because tuition was a deciding factor.
However, Merrett says it was also the little things that could have helped her make her decision.
"Other colleges sent me cute little Christmas cards and little trinkets and pens in the mail. And I don't know, Western, I didn't really get anything," she says.
Merrett eventually chose another university.
For Western, attracting students is only half the battle. It also must work to keep them in Macomb.
The university says about 70% of students return to campus from one semester to the next. Among the other 30%, the main reason they leave is money.
Western freezes tuition and other annual fees, but outside costs continue to rise. That makes students rely more on part-time jobs to get by.
Justin Gonzalez is a senior at Western, his parents can only help him a little bit of the way with school expenses, therefore he depends on his campus job at the Physical plant.
"I only get minimum wage so my whole check goes into my rent, so pretty much out of the $500-$600 I make, $400 goes to rent every single month so I only have $100 for two weeks. It gets pretty hard," says Gonzalez.
He has been looking for a second campus job for the extra money. After searching for over a semester, he has not had any luck.
"It's been a nightmare, I can't find anything,"he says.
But Andy Borst says that is because the university wants to make sure there is an opportunity for everyone to work, including newer students who might not have as much job experience.
"We've tried to carve out some of the jobs for upperclassmen to be held for new freshmen to come in, so we can balance it across the four years," says Borst.
The admissions office is enjoying some success with a few new methods of keeping students at Western.
"Because of the interventions that we put in place and for the targeted efforts we have had, including increasing admissions standards, retention is much, much better. We actually even won a national award for the programs we've put in place because of our retention efforts," Borst says.
The university hopes that award is just the start of an effort to keep more students on campus and to increase enrollment.
However, when 1800 and fewer full-time students are attending the main campus than seven years ago, it will take more than a plaque or a certificate to fill the empty classroom seats.