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The past few months have been exciting though stressful times in the McCaleb household.

Our son is a senior in high school and graduates in May.

In August, the family will pack up our SUV with many of his belongings and drive 12 hours south to Tuscaloosa, where he will begin his next journey in life studying engineering at the University of Alabama.

Like most parents, we're proud of what he's accomplished so far and know he has a bright future in front of him. But we're also dreading the moment we leave him outside his new dormitory and begin the 800-mile trek back to our Illinois home without him.

Before deciding on Alabama, my son made official visits to the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Purdue University in Indiana. He never seriously considered an Illinois school.

According to the latest report from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, released Tuesday, he's far from alone.

Nearly half of Illinois high school graduates — 48.4 percent — who attended a four-year college in 2017 enrolled in one outside the state. While the accelerating out-migration of Illinois college students increased during the two-year budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic legislature, the fact is it has been steadily rising the past two decades.

In 2002, fewer than 30 percent of public high school graduates — 29.3 percent, to be exact — enrolled in four-year colleges outside the state, according to Illinois State Board of Education. By 2014, before Rauner took office, that number had grown to 43.3 percent. At 48.4 percent now, will it be more than half in a year or two?

“This is not good news,” Nyle Robinson, interim executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said in a statement. “The out-migration trend continues to increase, and that means we’re not only losing students to out-of-state colleges and universities, we’re likely losing them to other states for good. We want to educate our state’s students and see them flourish in jobs here in the Land of Lincoln.”

Robinson's right. When you leave your home state to go to college, the chances of you returning for a job and to raise a family decrease.

Why are so many students, many of them top tier, leaving their home state to pursue higher education elsewhere? Simply put, Illinois lacks the fiscal discipline to properly invest in its best and brightest.

Like any parents undergoing a college search with their child, our journey to Tuscaloosa was at times fun, painful, time-consuming and eye-opening — especially when it came to evaluating overall costs.

Let's face it: College is an important investment, but it's also an expensive one. While not necessarily the driving factor for many families, financial considerations certainly are a big one.

My son heard from classmates that the University of Alabama had a good engineering program and a generous scholarship program. We looked into it, he applied, and we visited the school. His grades were good enough that he earned a scholarship. That pretty much cemented his decision.

According to a 2018 Chicago Tribune story, Alabama has been poaching Illinois' top students for years by offering generous financial incentives. Universities in many other states have, too.

Because of years of fiscal mismanagement, Illinois is virtually powerless to stop it.

State government here has had billion dollar budget deficits for years. As a result, the state's backlog of bills has grown to more than $8 billion. Lawmakers skipped pension payments and over-promised benefits to the point where the state's five public pension systems are underfunded by at least $135 billion. State and local governments spent 8.71 percent of all 2015 revenue on pension benefits, more than any other state, according to the latest data from the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. That's nearly double the national average of 4.65 percent. Because of decades of irresponsible fiscal decisions, Illinois has the lowest credit rating of any state in the U.S., and it's not even close. That's despite the fact we pay among the highest state and local taxes in the country.

When you manage your finances as poorly as Illinois has, there's not much money left to invest in your future.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly apparently haven't learned the lesson. They propose more of the same policies that got Illinois where it is — more tax hikes, spending increases and burdensome regulations that will continue to drive Illinoisans to find better opportunities elsewhere.

That includes our best and brightest young students.

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Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.

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