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More Illinois high school grads are leaving, for better and for good

Belleville News Democrat

Saturday, June 2, 2018  |  Editorial  |  By the BND Editorial Board

Education--Higher (37) Rose, Chapin--State Senate, 51
Illinois lawmakers are finally catching on that it is a problem when high school grads enroll in well-funded universities, meaning those outside of Illinois. The bright young people don't come back to Illinois to energize this workforce or pay taxes.

The problem is increasing. In 2000 about one in six Illinois students attended college outside of the state, but by 2016 that doubled to one in three students.

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, was pushing a package of bills that intended to put money toward the problem, but instead got a task force. So far they have learned that Illinois students most often choose between Illinois universities and none of the above, meaning they stay home because they likely don't have money for tuition. The most popular out-of-state destination is University of Alabama for those Illinois exiles.

The Illinois Monetary Award Program, known as MAP grants, are one-year scholarships. One Rose bill aimed to give students more of a guarantee that the grants will be there for four years, not just one. That's what out-of-state universities often offer.

Another bill aimed scholarships at high-achieving, middle-class students.

The goal is worthy, because we want Illinois youth to contribute to their hometowns. But Illinois lawmakers need to own the fact that they created the mess, then figure out the long-term strategy here. Then they need to stick to it — not a strength among a group known for their short memories.

Illinois universities for decades have been jerked in many directions by lawmakers. Demands for tuition control at the same time state funding is cut. The two-year budget impasse created a crisis with those MAP grants and left universities borrowing and cutting.

We see the local impacts as Southern Illinois University Carbondale lost one-third of its enrollment in 15 years. It now is facing an identity crisis, unsure whether it still has a declared major, plus fighting with both its sister campus and state lawmakers.

You have to wonder whether this local skirmish over money and mission doesn't also perfectly illustrate the larger decline of Illinois higher education and why this is not an attractive environment for high school grads. And there are fewer high school students in the pipeline, so the problem will get worse.

There are a lot of smart adult professionals out there who should be able to figure out how to keep smart high school students in Illinois. A solid plan, and a long-term commitment from state leaders to fund and set policy without micro-managing operations, would go a long way to making us attractive rather than repellent.