At Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Alex West was all-state in track, captain of the soccer team, first-chair saxophone in the band, all while he maintained a 3.94 grade-point average and got a 33 on the ACT.
He was very interested in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for its engineering program. But he says U. of I. didn’t give him any scholarship money — he knows of just one student in his class at Whitney Young, one of the top schools in Chicago, who received any kind of academic scholarship from U. of I., Illinois’ flagship state university. That was his class valedictorian.
And Case Western Reserve University, a private college in Cleveland, offered him $27,000 a year in academic scholarships.
He thought the engineering program at U. of I. was better. But the money Case Western offered made going there far less expensive, even with Illinois’ in-state tuition. So West, now 20, decided on Case Western, where he’s a junior.
And he says that, even with a scholarship offer to go to Champaign, his high school’s valedictorian decided to go to Williams College in Massachusetts, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
Illinois’ high school graduates increasingly have turned to out-of-state colleges, students and school counselors say, for a number of reasons, including cutbacks prompted by the state budget crisis, a belief they’ll get a better education elsewhere, the fact that their friends are doing it and because, as West found, with out-of-state schools aggressively bidding for top students, it can even be less expensive.
Enrollment reports for the 2018 school year show a dip in the total number of students attending Illinois’ four-year public universities in what’s become a difficult decade for the system.
As of last year, the number of students in the state’s public colleges and universities already was down 10 percent since 2010, with fewer students coming from out-of-state and more in-state students deciding to leave, according to figures collected by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
Even that figure hides deeper problems at the state’s regional universities, with the numbers propped up by just a few schools, especially the Chicago and Urbana-Champaign campuses of the University of Illinois. The U. of I. campuses each saw enrollment rise by more than 10 percent between 2010 and 2017, with record enrollments again this year.
On the flip side of that, Chicago State and Eastern Illinois were hit especially hard, each losing half of their total enrollment from 2010 to 2017.
Northern Illinois, Northeastern Illinois, Western Illinois and Southern Illinois Carbondale each saw enrollment fall by about 25 percent in the same period.
The growing flow of Illinois high school graduates to out-of-state colleges has been a key factor. In 2008, 3,000 more students left Illinois for college than came here from other states. By 2016, the difference had grown to more than 19,000, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Overall, about 17,000 high school grads left Illinois in 1992. By 2016, that number exceeded 35,000, according to the federal agency.
Amy Belstra, a college guidance counselor at Libertyville High School, says many students view going out-of-state as “better than” staying in-state. In part, Belstra atttributes that to steps that colleges in nearby states have taken to lure Illinois kids. She points to Western Michigan University and Central Michigan University — state schools that offer in-state tuition to students from Illinois.
Other out-of-state universities offer hefty scholarships to students they want to lure from Illinois in an effort to make their costs competitive.
In many cases, schools in other states are building on the foundation established by the Midwestern Student Exchange Program, an agreement guaranteeing students from participating states will pay no more than 150 percent of their own state’s in-state tuition when they decide to attend public universities out-of-state.
“The states around Illinois don’t produce enough undergraduates for their enrollment targets, so Illinois has become fertile ground for institutions around the Midwest to recruit,” says Al Bowman, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, who is a former president of Illinois State University.
Bowman says that, despite the pitches by some out-of-state schools that they’re less costly, research by his agency has found that Illinois students generally get a better deal financially if they stay in-state.
More than just money was involved in Joey Pucino’s college decision. The 2015 graduate of Libertyville High School says he was confident his college savings and scholarships would allow him to go anywhere he wanted. He ended up at the University of Arizona, lured in part by the weather and the film and television program there.
Also, Pucino, now 21, says, “I had always kind of wanted to go far just because I’m an adventurous person, just because I really needed to get out of Illinois after being there my entire childhood.”
He says his friends found themselves drawn out-of-state for similar reasons: “I think we just wanted to experience something new. We knew Libertyville would always be home and that we could always go back to Illinois.”
Laurel Hill, a 2013 graduate of Evanston Township High School, worried so many of her classmates were thinking about going to the University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Southern Illinois that going to any of those schools would be “like high school all over again.
“I wanted to go somewhere new, where nobody knew me, and I could kind of start over,” says Hill, who decided to go to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later transferred to Loyola University Chicago, from which she graduated this year.
Leaving Illinois “is kind of hyped up to be the thing you should do,” says West, reflecting a common view among dozens of former Illinois high school students interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times.
“When you turn 18, you should move out,” says West, “move out of the city to get some new perspective.”
Often, students choosing to leave Illinois don’t even go far. At Naperville Central High School, college counselor Jean Childers says that although 47 percent of her school’s graduating class left the state last year for college, 80 percent of them picked an out-of-state school that was within a six-hour drive.
Public schools in neighboring states — including the University of Iowa, Iowa State and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis — have been among the most popular out-of-state choices for Illinois students for decades, according to Department of Education data.
One reason students are drawn to neighboring states is that the idea of going to one of Illinois’ small-town or rural state universities is “scary” for many suburban Chicago kids “used to having a mall and Chipotle nearby and a huge metropolitan center an hour away,” Libertyville’s Belstra says.
Another factor: In-state enrollment declines in part reflected a squeeze on Illinois universities resulting from the ongoing state budget crisis, which hurt funding for a time for the Illinois Monetary Award Program, a need-based source of scholarships for students remaining in-state. Other fallout from the budget crisis included major layoffs at Northeastern Illinois, which also cut a week of classes last year, and Eastern Illinois — among the state schools least insulated by networks of alumni donors.
Now, for the first time in years at many Illinois state universities, first-year enrollment is beginning to rebound, though so far not enough to eliminate the overall decline, with 2,000 fewer full- and part-time students enrolled this fall than last fall at public universities across the state.
The state budget deal reached this summer gave universities a 2 percent increase in funding and their first on-time appropriations since 2014. Legislators also tinkered with financial aid programs, giving priority to MAP applications from returning students and providing $25 million in matching funds for a new merit-based award program designed to keep students in state.
The U. of I. announced in August it would guarantee a full ride for anybody in the lower half of family incomes in the state — the so-called “Illinois commitment.”
Another program aimed at hanging on to students, the Star Scholarship program launched in 2015, lets CPS students with a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher attend Chicago community colleges for free, then offers tuition discounts to affiliated schools where students can pursue their bachelor’s. All but one are in Illinois.
Sareena Volkman, 19, a Taft High School grad, is attending Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side, where she is a sophomore, under the Star Scholarship program. She plans to go on to Illinois State University, which she says was her top choice in high school but too expensive.
“They have a really good genetics program, and I really loved their acting program,” says Volkman, who figures she’ll have saved $60,000 by going to Wright. “It just would have resulted in an overwhelming amount of debt.”
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