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Brain drain: Out-of-state colleges key on recruiting students from Illinois

DeKALB – Two years of a budget impasse in Springfield that included cuts to state universities made the state’s graduating high school seniors a tempting target for out-of-state universities.

In that time, Northern Illinois University saw a decline in undergrad enrollment of 5 percent, and most state universities have suffered similar or greater declines in enrollment. At the same time, a network of recruiters in Chicago works to recruit Illinois’ best and brightest to other schools.

Tiffany Dallas, a Colorado State University admissions recruiter based in DeKalb, said a lot of the students she recruits from Illinois – specifically the area around Chicago – leave because it’s Colorado, although the uncertainty in state higher education plays a factor.

“Colorado is absolutely amazing and blows the state of Illinois out of the water,” Dallas said. “But the next step is the students don’t feel like their education is necessarily stable here. They’re just sick of hearing, ‘Yeah, there’s no budget; we don’t know if we have money; we have to cut programs.’ ”

In February, the Illinois Board of Higher Education published a report that said in 2015, the state suffered a net loss of more than 16,000 college students who left for out-of-state schools. That number was about 3,000 in 2008.

At the start of the fall 2017 semester, the “snapshot” provided by the IBHE said that, since 2015, Illinois public university enrollment for undergraduate students declined by 5 percent statewide. Most state-run public universities took a hit in that timespan, including Northern Illinois University’s 5 percent decline. Chicago State University lost 40 percent of its enrollment, and Eastern Illinois University lost 31 percent.

The University of Illinois campuses in Springfield and Urbana-Champaign experienced single-digit growth, however, and the University of Illinois at Chicago saw a jump of 11 percent.

With a longer view, the Illinois Policy Institute study of U.S. census data showed that over 15 years, 150,000 students left Illinois for institutions of higher learning in other states.

For some, Illinois just doesn’t offer what they need.

Olivia Willrett said she probably will come back to Illinois, but for now she’s enjoying her time as a first-year student at CSU. Her family’s cattle operation outside Malta raises livestock before sending them to market, and she wants to work in the family business, but there was more opportunity to learn about the industry, and more jobs, in the west. Also, she said, the tuition for an out-of-state student at CSU was comparable to in-state tuition at an Illinois university.

While Illinois schools will cut programs or staff to make ends meet, CSU has built a new recreation center and a multimillion-dollar football stadium in recent years, Dallas said.

Dallas said she’s recruited more students from Illinois for CSU each of the past three years. Last year, she said, she sent almost 150 to Fort Collins, Colorado.

Sol Jensen, Northern Illinois University’s vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communications, said the university has noticed a change in competition from out-of-state schools, especially at college fairs in Chicago.

“It’s not unique to Illinois or Chicago,” he said.

In a previous position, he was based in Boise, Idaho, to recruit students for Washington State University, he said.

The Chicago Area Regional Representatives, a professional group for college recruiters in the Chicago area, has more than 90 member schools and more than 100 recruiters in its ranks, and includes schools from across the country and Illinois.

“We’re very aware of this happening,” Jensen said.

The recruiting is part of a trend in higher education as a whole, he said. It’s not necessarily other universities picking Illinois’ bones.

“I think higher education in general has become very competitive,” Jensen said.

He said the real competition began around 2008, when the recession led to cuts at state universities and, at the same time, high schools were graduating fewer students. Colleges began recruiting out-of-state students hard because they would pay higher tuition rates and make up some of that lost funding from state cuts.

“For the first time, you get competition,” Jensen said.

Students still come to Illinois universities. Jensen said 95 percent of NIU’s students come from Illinois, and the IBHE reports that while enrollment at state universities still declined from fall 2016 to fall 2017, that decline was at a slower pace.

Jensen also reported that the incoming average grade-point average of the incoming class at NIU is up.

“We had a great class coming in last year,” he said.

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