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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, Brady said.

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,” Bowman said. “The difference is it has accelerated during recent years, particularly during the budget impasse,” when Illinois 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 in 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, explains Bowman.

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

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

One campus that's seen growth, although it had a slight dip in enrollment last fall, is ISU.

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, Dietz said.

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 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,” Dunn said, 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, Bowman said.

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

Dietz agrees. “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,” Dietz said, 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,” Dietz said. “But we need to get back to a reasonable amount of investment.”

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LENORE SOBOTA writes for The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, a Lee Enterprises publication of The Southern.


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