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When Illinois Students Leave The State For College, Who Reaps The Rewards?

Data visualization using data from the Illinois State Board of Higher Education

A few years ago, when he was going to Yorkville High School, Matt Pitstick saw college recruiters roaming his school who surprised him and made his friends laugh. They were recruiters from a university more than 700 miles away: the University of Alabama. 

"I remember when I first saw it, we all just joked about it -- like 'Haha yeah, the University of Alabama,'" he said. "But then you look into it and it's like, 'You know what, maybe that's not a bad idea.'" 

It was the scholarships they were willing to offer that got his attention. He says he sent in his ACT scores and eventually received a letter telling him he'd gotten a full-ride scholarship. 

Around a decade ago,45 first-time Illinois college students enrolled at the University of Alabama. Fast forward to today and the university has catapulted into the Top 10 out-of-state schools where Illinois students go. By 2016, that 45 had turned into 464 new students. 

"One of my best friends down there is from Des Plaines, one of our other friends is from Granite City," said Pitstick. "There's a lot of people at Alabama from Illinois." 

And, like in Pitstick's case, they're not afraid to offer big scholarships to lure Illinois students. According to the Chicago Tribune, Alabama gavefull-rides to 203 Illinois freshmen in 2017. 

Pitstick did apply to schools in Illinois. But they couldn't offer him close to what Alabama did. Nearly half of Illinois public high school graduates enrolled in four-year universities leave the state for college.  

Graphic showing which out-of-state schools students are going to the most, and how many total schools students are going to within those states.

"No, I got nothing," he said. "I mainly applied to the University of Illinois and then my other one was Iowa State. But the University of Illinois wouldn't give me anything at all." 

Alabama is not the only out-of-state school that has pounced on the opportunity while Illinois has struggled with budget impasses and funding cuts. 

Far and away the top school for Illinois students who leave is the University of Iowa. 

Nearly 1,700 first-time Illinois college students enrolled there in 2016. As opposed to Illinois schools who have struggled with enrollment declines, Iowa has steadily grown. In fact, when enrollment dropped last year, it was because the school wanted it to. The Board of Regents purposely let enrollment fallso they could focus on retention and graduation rates. 

Alabama and Iowa invest heavily in the recruitment of Illinois students. Iowa has five recruiters here and Alabama has four.  

Another outlier in recruiting Illinois students is Carthage College. They're a small, private liberal arts school in Kenosha, Wisconsin -- about 15 miles from the Illinois border. 

But, like Iowa, they've been growing in the last few years. Last year, they welcomed their largest freshman class ever.

"The majority of students are actually coming from outside of Wisconsin, and Illinois is that big draw," said Ashley Hanson, Assistant Vice President of Admissions at Carthage. 

She says around 400 new Illinois students have been coming to Carthage every year for nearly a decade. 

University of Alabama student Matt Pitstick holds up his lanyard in his hometown of Yorkville, Illinois.

"We are close enough to home that they can still get home on a random weekend if they needed to, but yet they're out of state," said Hanson. "They're getting that going-away-to-campus feel. So it's kind of the best of both worlds." 

Back in Illinois, students are still leaving at an alarming rate. And enrollment at the state's public colleges and universities, which rely on state aid,has taken the biggest hit

"Some of this has to do with some external factors that aren't about the quality of institutions here," said Quinton Clay, the Director of Admissions at Northern Illinois University. 

He adds the university has to prioritize who, what, when, and where they were communicating with potential students. Even the Illinois students may be looking for that best-of-both-worlds experience. 

"I don't want to deny the student an opportunity to see themselves in another place accomplishing a particular thing, interacting with all sorts of people, I don't want to deny that," said Clay. "I want to introduce ourselves as a part of the conversation to say, 'Think about us, as you're thinking about that.'" 

Clay says the university's newstrategic enrollment plan puts them in a realistic position to thrive. But, he says, it'll take change. 

"It's feasible, but it's going to be uncomfortable. Change can be a reality of time and progression," said Clay. "And as much as we can react a little bit to some of the things that are outside of our control, I look to the day that we turn the page and we become proactive and predictive." 

Even though Illinois' outmigration problem doesn't look to be going away any time soon, he's glad NIU is having the necessary conversations to combat it. 

"I don't think this is a conversation that's taboo or a negative conversation, as somebody's done something wrong," he said. "I think we should fight after what we care about most. And that's our students. And that's our local populations." 

This year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker increased funding for the "AIM high" grant program to help ease the exodus. It provides merit scholarships to Illinois students at the state's public universities.