Financial aid is playing an increasingly important role in luring record numbers of Illinois high school graduates to colleges in nearby states in an intensifying Midwest battle for students.
Illinois legislators vexed by the state’s loss of college-bound students will propose fixes soon, but more money for financial aid may be a missing part of the equation.
The future of Illinois higher education, particularly at its public universities, is at stake as the state grapples with how to hang on to homegrown students and attract more from other states to bolster income at a time when the U.S. population of high school graduates is contracting. The cash-strapped state has been slow to react to the changing landscape, and stumbled badly in holding up grants during its recent two-year budget impasse.
“Illinois has so far failed to adapt to that changing marketplace,” says Republican state Sen. Chapin Rose, who is part of a bipartisan legislative working group that began reviewing Illinois higher education late last year.
The most recent statistics available from the Illinois Board of Higher Education show 18,165 Illinois high school graduates chose four-year colleges outside the state in 2015, mainly drawn to rival regional public universities. Only 22 percent more, 22,236 students, stayed in Illinois, despite in-state benefits. Including other types of higher education, such as community college, Illinois had a net loss of 16,623 freshmen in 2014, the highest net loss in more than a decade, the board says.
Not surprisingly, students, administrators and counselors say that financial aid and the rising cost of college play a significant role in decision-making. Some states and cities have responded with free higher education options—a trend that could put downward pressure on pricing.
Paula Luff, associate vice president of enrollment services at DePaul University, says that during her 30 years working with students she’s seen them become more sensitive to the cost of higher education as the pace of state and federal aid increases have fallen behind rising tuition and fees. Schools like DePaul are forced to fill in the gap with private and operating funds, she says.
For many students across the country, staying home is much cheaper, with average in-state tuition and fees of $9,970 for a four-year public school for the 2017-18 school year, versus $25,620 for out-of-state public school tuition and fees, and $34,640 for private, nonprofit four-year schools, according to the nonprofit College Board organization. The cost of public in-state education is up 37 percent over the past decade, while private schooling is 26 percent higher, the board says.
States aim to ease that burden by supplementing federal Pell Grants with state programs. Illinois ranked 12th among states in funding student financial aid for the 2015-16 school year, and it had a middle-of-the-pack standing on a per capita basis, according to the most recent survey by the National Association of State Student Grant & Aid Programs.
But as Illinois funding for public universities has declined, tuitions have climbed to make up the difference, making the state’s average tuition and fees for in-state students the fifth-highest in the U.S., according to a recent report from the Civic Federation’s Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability.
Illinois has been moving in the opposite direction of most states over the past decade: decreasing aid, rather than increasing it. The state cut annual aid by 16 percent in the past 10 years, while Iowa boosted it by 21 percent and Wisconsin jacked it up 34 percent, the association says. Those two states attracted the most outbound Illinois students in 2016.
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Why are so many college freshmen leaving Illinois?
Illinois aid peaked at $411.6 million in 2012 but has sagged to $346.4 million for the current school year, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. And those figures gloss over the major disruption to the Illinois Monetary Award Program spurred by Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Legislature’s failure for two years to agree on a budget, temporarily blocking $320 million promised to students until last year. While schools tried to backstop funding, some students couldn’t make ends meet and dropped out, leaving them with debts and no degrees.
That episode tarnished the image of Illinois in the eyes of students and parents because it undercut stability and certainty, says Eric Zarnikow, executive director at the commission. “The brand of higher education was harmed during the budget delay,” he says. “It made it more appealing for some students to go out of state.”
Even without that kind of drama, only half of eligible students in Illinois receive aid, essentially on a first-come, first-served basis.
The state’s higher education system is due for an overhaul, says Sen. Rose, who favors a more centralized planning authority, but he plans to support shorter-term proposals to be unveiled by the legislative group in the next few weeks. “Everyone is really committed to make higher education in Illinois stronger,” says Democratic Rep. Kelly Burke, who is also on the 12-member group and chairs the House committee for higher education appropriations.
They have a consensus on some legislative proposals, or perhaps agency rule changes, aimed at giving Illinois institutions more firepower in the competition for students. The proposals include revising a state rule so Illinois universities have more leeway to discount tuition for out-of-state students; creating a common public university application; and offering Illinois MAP grants on a four-year basis, as opposed to one-year increments. As for more state financial aid, Rose predicts it’s not going to happen because the state is broke.
That won’t stop Zarnikow from asking. His commission is seeking an additional $100 million for the aid program next year. That 45 percent increase would put Illinois aid at its highest level ever.