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.

Eastern Illinois University is not seeing a direct impact this enrollment cycle. The university has been reporting consistently positive projections for the upcoming fall enrollment numbers.

However, the concern is still there, said Josh Norman, associate vice president for enrollment management at EIU.

“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,” Bowman said. “The difference is it has unaccelerated 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.

“It is alarming,” Norman said.

Eastern has seen a recent  upswing in enrollment, and both Norman and EIU President David Glassman attributed that to their strategic initiatives to attract students to the university.

This includes academic program additions and enhancements both online and in the classroom, engaging in earlier and more frequent recruitment opportunities and creating more personalized and targeted marketing materials, Glassman said.

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

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

The University of Illinois system has also bucked the trend slightly, but still is making efforts to keep students home. On Jan. 18, the board of trustees voted to freeze tuition for in-state freshmen for a fourth straight year at the U of I campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Chicago to combat the migration.

Total system-wide enrollment has increased 6.6 percent to a record 83,711 students over that time.

“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.”

Another 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.

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.

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.

“Students and parents will respond to financial incentives,” ISU President Larry Dietz 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.

Beyond legislation, Glassman stressed that stable and predictable funding is important when looking to curb this problem.

It is “central to bringing long-term growth back to Illinois higher education,” he said.

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

There is a major risk of “brain drain” in the state said Norman, noting that students who attend college out-of-state are less likely to return to Illinois than those who stay here for school.

It has been more challenging with border state universities taking advantage of the migration. Norman said they are making invasive and aggressive moves to attract these Illinois students.

This includes painting false narratives of the affordability of state schools, Glassman said.

“While the budget impasse accelerated what had been a preexisting trend, different tuition structures between Illinois and its border states paint false comparisons regarding college affordability in Illinois,” he said. “The truth is, an Illinois higher education is just as, if not more affordable, than it is in our neighboring states.”

Norman said states even as far as Arizona are taking advantage of the situation. He mentioned many have been placing in-state representatives to build relationships with these high school students, a fairly aggressive strategy in his eyes. A university won't place an admissions representative in another state without expectations of positive returns, he continued.

“It’s our job to let prospective students know that EIU will provide them with the kind of personal attention and support they’ll need to succeed here,” Glassman said.

JG-TC staff writer Jarad Jarmon contributed to this story.

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Reporter

Jarad Jarmon is a reporter for the JG-TC. He covers the city of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Mattoon schools and the Regional Office of Education.

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