The market forces prompting Roosevelt University to significantly scale back its Schaumburg operation are the result of a "tectonic shift" in higher education in Illinois that is being felt by colleges throughout the state, experts say.
It is the result of both changing demographics and corporate cutbacks in the wake of two recessions, and the challenges are even more pronounced for private and suburban universities, said James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
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Roosevelt University's Schaumburg campus, once the largest four-year university in the Northwest suburbs, will be reduced to the College of Pharmacy by the end of 2014. Every other course of study will be relocated to the main campus in Chicago, and the empty space in Schaumburg will be rented.
"This is not an unusual situation. We're seeing a tectonic shift in higher education," Applegate said.
Charlie Gregory, executive vice president of Benedictine University, said the school's private Lisle campus is feeling many of the same forces that led Roosevelt to scale back its suburban presence.
"I think we're all feeling this is one of the toughest years we've had," Gregory said. "Everyone's looking for that silver ring of enrollment. It's a different climate than it used to be."
Benedictine University has seen a downturn in transfers from community colleges but has widened its search for four-year students throughout the region. That's resulted in its second-biggest freshman class in history -- a success story that nevertheless cost the university money to achieve.
Most likely, not every institution is capable of mounting the same effort, Gregory said.
"If the balance sheet is not very strong, it prevents you from being strategic," he said. "It really is a challenging time, but the question comes down to where an institution is putting its resources."
Many factors contribute to the situation, but one of the most basic is the state's aging population, Applegate said. Fewer young people are heading off to college.
"We're not young in Illinois and not having enough kids to replace ourselves," he said.
Applegate also agrees with Roosevelt University President Chuck Middleton's assessment that urban campuses are having more success attracting students than those in the suburbs.
One reason why, according to conventional wisdom, is that members of the Millennial generation -- those born between 1980 and 2000 -- are less interested in the suburban image of a house with a yard and commuting to work by car, he said.
"The collar counties of Chicago are suffering a bit, but Chicago itself is on the upswing," Applegate said.
He hopes the effect of this "reverse migration" won't be like that of the original suburban growth that began in the 1950s, to the detriment of the inner city left behind. Applegate said he doesn't want to see the suburbs hollowed out by a full-scale return of business and educational institutions to Chicago.
In hopes of reversing the trend and making their campuses more attractive to today's students, suburban schools are turning to specialization.
Benedictine, for example, is constructing a new College of Business building, opening in the fall of 2015. Officials hope the business school attracts students in the same way as Roosevelt's College of Pharmacy in Schaumburg.
On the other hand, North Central College in Naperville required only marginal expansion of its recruitment efforts to wind up with its second-largest freshman class this fall.
Their success came in spite of a dwindling number of high school graduates in the Chicago area that is being recruited more aggressively by colleges in other parts of the country, particularly the Northeast, said Marty Sauer, North Central's vice president for enrollment management and athletics.
"I think North Central has always had a good understanding of its place in the market," Sauer said.
Tom Karow, Roosevelt's assistant vice president of public relations, said the university's entry into the health care sector through the College of Pharmacy three years ago was a strategic move that reflected the changing times.
"Roosevelt University has always geared its academic programs to the marketplace, and this has been especially true in the Northwest suburbs," he said in an email. "In the mid-1990s when the campus opened, we served many of the large employers in the area, a number of which had corporate reimbursement programs."
But beginning in 2002, in response to a recession, many corporations and suburban school districts eliminated tuition reimbursements or greatly restricted them, Karow said.
Harper College spokesman Phil Burdick said the Palatine-based community college has been struggling more with enrollment in its adult programs for those 25 and up than with traditional 19- to 25-year-old students.
Reaching out to older students has become a new area of focus for Harper, Burdick said. As a taxing body, the college can't simply abandon a segment of its mission to serve the public, he added.
Harper will miss the relationship it's had with Roosevelt's Schaumburg campus, Burdick added. About 100 Harper graduates each year transfer to Roosevelt to continue their studies -- making it about the fifth or sixth most popular choice, he said.
What's happening to suburban universities is having an impact on their host communities as well, Gregory said. He believes educational institutions are like the gyms of their communities -- where their future workforce "works out" and trains.
Laurie Stone, former president of the Schaumburg Business Association, said Roosevelt's announcement saddened her but wasn't much of a surprise because she knew the university had been struggling for years to improve the viability of the campus.
"I'm sorry this has occurred, but we all have to be aware of changing conditions moving forward," Stone said. "I'm sure this wasn't an easy decision. I just think this is a business decision."
For a time everyone thought that if they survived the deeper recession of 2008 everything would return to normal, Benedictine's Gregory said. But the changes now appear permanent and have forced everyone to focus on their core mission more than ever before.
"If you're opening a campus to make money, you're probably not going to make any money," he said.