Enrollment is down this fall at most of Illinois' public universities, and administrators and experts say the sluggish economy, rising tuition and dwindling financial aid are likely to blame.
At least eight of Illinois' 12 public universities saw their enrollments drop this fall, while just two — one of them the University of Illinois flagship campus — have reported increases. Northeastern Illinois University won't have fall figures until later this month, while Chicago State University didn't provide figures.
The sharpest drops were at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston -- 6.8 percent -- and at Southern Illinois' campus in Carbondale and Northern Illinois, both off by almost 5 percent.
Even after EIU trustees agreed to the school's smallest tuition increase in 11 years for this fall's incoming class, tuition still rose by 3.7 percent to $8,370 a year, which doesn't include housing or living expenses. And the available state aid fell by 4 percent as lawmakers looked for ways to ease a multibillion-dollar government budget deficit.
"The costs are up and aid is down and family income is languishing," Blair Lord, Eastern's provost and vice president for academic affairs, said. "Getting to college is getting to be a challenge for students."
A few schools noted increases in the sizes of their freshmen classes, a positive sign but not one they're ready to point to as evidence that the economy or road to college are getting smoother.
Northern Illinois' freshman class grew 2.9 percent to 2,664, but that number could fall by next year through attrition, NIU spokesman Paul Palian said. The school saw a traditional source of student growth -- transfers -- drop for reasons that are not yet clear, he said.
Enrollment also fell at Western Illinois, Illinois State University and the University of Illinois campuses in Chicago and Springfield, although the Chicago drop was less than a tenth of a percent.
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville saw a decrease in students for the first time in eight years.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was joined by Governor's State University in seeing an enrollment increase. Enrollment at Governor's State rose 2 percent.
Illinois public universities have on average the fifth-highest tuition rates in the country, just under $12,000 a year, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. Only New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Hampshire -- No. 1 at $13,507 -- are higher.
Illinois tuitions have increased almost 10 percent over the past decade, compared to about 6 percent for the country as a whole, the commission's John Samuels said.
While Illinois once supplied abundant financial aid, he said its financial crisis has led lawmakers to cut money for the Monetary Award Program -- the state's primary financial aid instrument -- from about $387 million to $371 million this year.
That means the program has enough money to cover about half of what the 140,000 students in the program are eligible for. About 100,000 students have been turned away for lack of money each of the past three years.
"If you go back 10 years ago for the MAP program, we were able to provide 100 percent of those eligible 100 percent of the awards they were eligible for," Samuels said.
Many schools have tried to close that gap, either through efforts to increase tuition as little as possible or by adding their own money, when they can, to the pool.
The University of Illinois, for instance, started a fundraising drive last year to raise an extra $100 million for scholarships by 2014 through private donations. And the university system has more money to offer than the other public universities in the state.
"We're fortunate that we have a large pool, and we certainly are aware that affordability is a factor," said Stacey Kostell, the assistant provost for enrollment management at the Urbana-Champaign campus. "We did add more money to need-based financial aid."
The campus has its largest-ever enrollment this fall, at 42,883. Freshmen enrollment, however, is down 4 percent to about 6,900 students.
Governor's State added to its enrollment by looking on community college campuses. The school has only upper-level students, and found that many community colleges don't have large staffs dedicated to helping students move beyond two-year schools, said Rhonda Brown, assistant vice president of marketing communications.
So now, Governor's State offers that kind of counseling.
"We have a very specific, targeted program for students who are navigating that community college environment," Brown said.