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Universities struggle with enrollment as students leave state

46% of high school grads in 2016 chose colleges outside Illinois

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Keeping future businessmen in-state like Illinois State University business majors Josh Lamb and Kevin Irlbacker, right, is a major priority for government and higher education leaders. Both Lamb and Irlbacker are from Crystal Lake and were working Thursday on homework assignments in the State Farm Hall of Business. They said the value in an ISU business education as well as close proximity to the Chicago suburbs was a reason they decided to stay in-state.

NORMAL — The pace at which Illinois high school graduates are leaving the state to attend college is accelerating at the same time most public universities are struggling to maintain enrollment — and that has state higher education officials worried.

“It's deeply troubling and I choose those words carefully,” said Al Bowman, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education and former president of Illinois State University.

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, sounded an alarm at a recent McLean County Republican Party breakfast, saying higher education needs to be “retooled” and “left unchecked for the next four years, entire campuses are going to close.”

Rose and state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, have introduced legislation calling for a comprehensive overhaul of higher education. It prompted the creation of a bipartisan working group that has had several meetings.

“Business as usual can't go on” in higher education, said Brady.

Forty-six percent of the members of the high school class of 2016 in Illinois who headed to four-year schools enrolled out of state, according to figures from the Illinois State Board of Education.

That compares to 29 percent in 2002.

“Illinois has had a history of out-migration for many, many years,” said Bowman. “The difference is it has accelerated during recent years, particularly during the budget impasse” when the state went without a full-year budget in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 and higher education saw significant funding cuts.

 At the same time, overall enrollment at the state's public universities is declining, from 204,781 in fall 2009 to 188,405 in fall 2016.

Rose notes that enrollment is growing at only four of the 12 public university campuses.

“Where's our plan to protect our strengths and shed our weaknesses … so everyone has a chance at a world-class education?” asked Rose. “Let's not wait until the inevitable happens.”

A couple of factors are at play, said Bowman.

The pool of 18-year-olds in the Midwest is shrinking and the composition of the pool has changed. There are more students from underrepresented groups with historically lower college participation rates than the general population, he said.

“It's a highly competitive marketplace,” added Bowman. “Some universities have learned how to compete in that environment. For others, it's a learning curve.”

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Illinois State University business majors network in the Country Financial atrium inside State Farm Hall of Business Thursday. Students identified local business support of curriculum at ISU as one of the main reasons they decided to stay in-state.

One campus that's seen growth, although it had a slight dip in enrollment last fall, is ISU. Total enrollment was 20,784, down 1.2 percent from 21,039 in fall 2016, which was a record high.

ISU President Larry Dietz said the school has fared well because “we have a strong brand. Our academic programs are strong.”

He said the faculty invests time and energy to make sure academic offerings are up to date and the university works to “stay on the edge of innovation.” Strong retention, graduation and loan repayment rates also help reassure parents and students about investing in ISU, said Dietz.

Eastern Illinois University has been focusing on identifying students at risk of dropping out and offering the intensive services needed to help retain them.

Randy Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University system, which has campuses in Carbondale, Edwardsville and Springfield, has experienced both sides of the enrollment issue.

While Carbondale has seen enrollment drop considerably, Edwardsville's enrollment is growing.

“The Edwardsville campus has a very strong, edgy, forward-looking recruiting and marketing program,” said Dunn, adding it's been able to invest money in marketing because stronger enrollment gives it more resources.

More aggressive recruiting is one of the solutions to keeping Illinois students in Illinois, said Bowman.

But that's not all. “Money talks,” he said.

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Keeping future students in Illinois is one thing, drawing students from out-of-state is a bonus some might think difficult. However, Illinois State University stage design graduate students Kim Lartz of Poolesville, Md. and Caroline Dischell of Greensboro, N.C., said their decision to get their education in Illinois was easy as ISU offered one of the best mentors in the country in stage design professor John Stark. They said when schools offer top-notch teachers like Stark, students in Illinois should consider staying in-state. The pair were designing palm leaves for the set of the school's upcoming Mozart opera, "Così fan tutte."

Dietz agreed. “Students and parents will respond to financial incentives,” he said.

Schools, such as ISU, have put money into institutional financial aid.

Among ideas under discussion at the state level is revamping the Monetary Awards Program that is based on financial need, and looking at merit-based aid.

When out-of-state schools recruit Illinois students, they are generally targeting those with higher grade point averages and standardized test scores.

“We're losing our intellectual brainpower,” said Dietz, noting that students who attend college out-of-state are less likely to return to Illinois than those who stay here for school.

“We understand the state is in a financial pickle and we're not immune to that,” said Dietz. “But we need to get back to a reasonable amount of investment.”

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter @Pg_Sobota


Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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