CHAMPAIGN — High school seniors’ unease over the lack of state funding for Illinois universities is contributing to a drop in applications at a number of campuses, and the problem appears to primarily affect schools facing the some of the toughest financial struggles.
A review of admissions data by The Associated Press found that applications for the 2016-2017 fall semester are down for at least four of the state’s 12 public university campuses — all of them smaller schools that don’t have as much money coming in from things like research grants and tuition and have smaller endowments.
At least three schools have seen an increase in applicants this year, including the University of Illinois’ flagship campus. Others did not provide complete numbers or declined to discuss their situations.
Some schools in neighboring states, meanwhile, say more Illinois students are applying.
Belleville resident Bryce Evans considered Eastern Illinois University, among other schools, but the Althoff Catholic High School senior is instead opting for Butler University, a private school in Indianapolis. He said one factor was the uncertainty over education funding in his home state due to the budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly that’s now approaching a full year.
“The fact that the school I would be going to would be losing more funding took it off my list,” he said of Eastern, which is in Charleston.
Evans’ classmate, Alana Reinhardt, ultimately decided to attend Eastern — despite warnings from her friends.
“Everyone shook their heads and laughed at me,” she said. “They said, ‘You’re not going to have a school to go to next year.'”
Public universities in Illinois went months without state funding before a partial, stop-gap payment this year, and Rauner and the Democrats are not close to agreement on next year’s funding, either. While some of the affected schools saw enrollment drop in recent years for non-budget reasons, they all say the impasse and lack of funding is a key reason behind the current declines.
“Our office fields calls on a daily basis to address rumors about the future of Illinois higher education,” said Andy Borst, director of admissions at Western Illinois University in Macomb. “The parents who call us usually comment on how relieved they are to hear things are not as bad as they assumed, but there are many more parents and students who don’t call us.”
Northeastern Illinois University Provost Richard Helldobler and administrators at other schools said high school guidance counselors are advising students to think about bypassing state schools.
Some schools, including Eastern and Western Illinois, have laid off employees. Chicago State University, the hardest hit, cut a third of its employees and ended the spring semester early. Hundreds of millions of dollars in Monetary Award Program grants, typically available for low-income students, also weren’t funded for months before Rauner and lawmakers agreed in April to provide part of the money.
Few of the state’s public universities were willing to provide projections of how many students they will add this fall or how many students have committed. Many will wait until final decisions by some students this summer.
However, Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, University of Illinois-Springfield and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville all say they had fewer applicants this year. Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus was among those that declined to provide numbers, but Chancellor Brad Colwell told university trustees this month to expect a drop in fall enrollment.
Western Illinois is expecting an incoming class of between 1,300 and 1,400 students, Borst said. That’s fewer than last fall’s 1,535 but better than the school projected in March, before state lawmakers provided a partial appropriation.
The University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus says 7,969 freshmen-to-be have accepted admission, an increase of more than 400 from last year. A record 38,075 students applied to the school, which also lost state funding but has a global reputation in engineering and other fields, a large endowment and additional funding sources.
Illinois State University in Normal declined to provide projections, but it, too, saw applications increase and expects enrollment “comparable” to last fall, spokesman Eric Jome said.
Neighboring states expect the misfortunes will bring an influx of Illinois students.
Western Michigan University, a Kalamazoo school which has two full-time recruiters focused on Chicago students, expects to enroll the largest freshman class from Illinois in recent history.
At Murray State University in southwest Kentucky, officials report that applications from some Illinois border counties are up as much as 40 percent.
“I’ve heard from parents and families who are unsure where Illinois is going to be with … higher education funding,” said Fred Dietz, Murray State’s associate vice president for enrollment management. “Students are taking that and looking elsewhere.”