Several state universities are partnering on new efforts to keep talented Illinois high school seniors in the state for college — and combat declining enrollment at some campuses — most recently at a high-profile recruiting event for top students in southern Illinois.
The University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University co-sponsored the first “Salute to Illinois Scholars” on Tuesday at Mount Vernon’s Doubletree Hilton for more than 170 college-bound students from the region.
Students at the college fair connected with more than 100 admissions and academic staff from Eastern, the UI’s three campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield; and Southern’s campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville.
All three university presidents also took part in a panel discussion with students from their schools to give future applicants a first-hand perspective on college life.
The fair drew students from 34 counties south of Interstate 70 and the Metro-East area who are “college ready,” with a B average or above and qualifying ACT score, officials said.
They were encouraged to apply to each of the six participating schools, which agreed to waive their application fees for those who attended.
The hope is to stem the migration of Illinois high school students to colleges in other states and, for the UI, improve its recruiting in southern Illinois.
Illinois is second only to New Jersey in the net number of students lost to colleges in other states, with 16,000, officials said. In 2015, 45 percent of college-bound high school graduates in Illinois enrolled out of state, up from 29 percent in 2002. UI President Tim Killeen said studies show that most college graduates stay in the state where they earn their degrees.
Going out of state is the right option for some students, but in other cases, families just don’t have enough information about the opportunities at Illinois public universities, said Barbara Wilson, executive vice president and VP for academic affairs for the UI system.
The fair was designed to counter the perception that “you need to go outside because things are bad here,” she said.
Both Eastern and Southern have also seen steep enrollment declines over the past few years, blamed mostly on the state’s budget crisis. Southern’s fall enrollment is down 8.96 percent from 2016, to 14,554 students. At Eastern, enrollment dropped 5 percent to 7,030 students, though it was the smallest decline in six years.
The UI system’s enrollment grew by nearly 3 percent this year, including a 2.4 percent increase in undergraduates from Illinois, and the Urbana campus hit a new record high. But the UI Springfield’s enrollment fell.
And while 80 percent of the UI system’s students are from Illinois, the number of in-state freshmen dropped slightly at the Urbana campus, even though it admitted 400 more Illinois applicants than last year.
Killeen said the southern Illinois event is important for the UI because the region includes several counties with relatively low student enrollment at the university’s three campuses.
“Our goal is to enhance our outreach to the southern part of the state,” Wilson said.
Twelve counties south of Interstate 70, and nine more in western or northwestern Illinois, sent no freshmen to the Urbana campus this year. A sizable majority of the freshman class — more than 4,400 students — hail from Chicago or its suburbs.
Wilson said there are only two counties with no undergraduates at the UI, but “we don’t get the applications we might like.” She’s hoping to see an uptick after this year’s event in Mount Vernon, and the UI plans to repeat it next year, perhaps in a different southern Illinois city.
The UI has long hosted a similar event in Chicago every year for all three of its campuses, but wasn’t “embracing southern Illinois the way we needed to,” Wilson said.
The UI invited other schools that recruit from the region to co-sponsor the fair so they could work in partnership rather than compete, she said. At the college fair, students were able to talk to six campuses of “different sizes, different focus areas,” she said.
Killeen said he wants to strengthen connections with the state’s brightest students and its “best-in-class” universities.