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CARBONDALE — While working in a lab at Southern Illinois University this past summer, rumors of downsizing — professors leaving and programs getting the ax — left Troy Johnson dismayed.

The work was rewarding, but all the talk of scaling back, of stagnation, left Johnson, a John A. Logan College sophomore who had hoped to transfer to SIU in his junior year, wishing he could leave Illinois altogether.

“It was kind of a shock,” said Johnson, a Marion native who hopes to study biology. “The fact it’s possibly necessary to cut those positions at a university, it was disheartening.

“I decided it would be good to look at other options,” he added.

Next year, rather than wait out the state budget stalemate that has left Illinois public colleges and universities without state funding for more than seven months, Johnson will join the horde of students headed out-of-state next year.

At Murray State University, the western Kentucky school where Johnson is slated to begin classes at the end of the summer, a border-state tuition discount makes finances affordable. And the university, he said, seems to be thriving.

“There’s always building, there’s always progress forward,” he said. “They’re always adding something or it just seems like there’s more progress being made rather than stagnation."

SIU brass announced $13.5 million in program cuts and efficiencies this past fall. President Randy Dunn has said more cuts could be on the way, though likely not until the next fiscal year.

Johnson isn’t the only student to make the switch. Dana Howard, a Murray State spokeswoman, said the school has seen an influx of central Illinois and Metro East students enrolling for classes next year, though administrators can’t be sure why. Murray State has ramped up recruiting in that area over the past couple years.

In Southern Illinois, some high school counselors said they aren’t seeing an exodus of students. At Carbondale Community High School, counselor Erinn Murphy said in an email that applications to JALC and SIU have skyrocketed this year. She hasn’t seen students looking out-of-state.

Still, budget woes have left some students spooked.

Katie Hickam, a school counselor at Murphysboro High School, said several students have stopped by the office “in a panic” that SIU, Eastern Illinois University or another state school will close next year.

“We try to reassure them that they’re still going to be open,” she said. “But I think it’s difficult for us to reassure these students when we really don’t have any idea of what’s going to happen.”

But for many kids, even taking into account in-state tuition agreements, which allow students in neighboring states to pay in-state rates, going to college far from home remains a pricey prospect.

Abby Vaughn, a senior at Murphysboro, has two siblings in college. Though she’s considered Murray State for its affordable tuition, she knows staying in Illinois will put less stress on her parents’ wallets in the long run.

“I’m trying to make a decision that not only benefits me but also my family so they’re not up to their eyes in debt,” she said.

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sarah.graham@thesouthern.com

618-351-5076

@SHalaszGraham​

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Sarah Graham is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering higher education and Union County.

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