— Take a walk around Lathrop Hall at the University of Missouri, and it won't take long before you meet someone from the Chicago area.
There are the roommates from Barrington and Cary, and, two doors down, freshmen from Lemont and Mount Prospect. The peer adviser, a junior, is from Plainfield and the front desk attendant is from Naperville.
"I had no idea how many people came here from Chicago," said freshman Madi Ahsmann, 18, from Crystal Lake, who has a Blackhawks towel hanging in the room she shares with a student from Kildeer. "It's really crazy how many of us are here."
Illinois students now make up more than 20 percent of the Missouri school's freshman class — up from 6 percent in 2000 — just one sign of the growing number of students crossing the border for college, attracted in large part by competitive pricing in nearby states.
The Tribune analyzed U.S. Department of Education data to determine where Illinois' high school graduates are going to college, and how that has changed over time. The newspaper found that for the fall 2010 semester, nearly one-quarter of all first-time students left the state — up from 17 percent a decade earlier.
The approximately 30,000 freshmen who left fanned out across the country, but they were concentrated most heavily at schools in neighboring states. Half ended up in Iowa, Indiana, Missouri or Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Illinois imported about 17,000 students from elsewhere in the United States.
Illinois policymakers should pay attention — and work to keep the brightest students from leaving, said Diane Dean, an Illinois State University education professor who studies college student migration.
"Other schools cherry-pick — and they are recruiting them with money," Dean said. "These aren't just any students who are leaving; these are the highly talented students. We are not talking about 20 people who went to the University of Denver because they loved skiing."
And when they leave, there's a good chance they might not come back.
"If you consider the public investment (in elementary and secondary school) we have made in these individuals over the course of their life span, and then they are taking the investment elsewhere ... that gives me cause for deep concern," Dean said.
Over the past decade, no college in the country has had as large an increase in the number of students from Illinois as the University of Missouri at Columbia. It welcomed 1,370 freshmen from Illinois this fall — a record 21 percent of the class. Ten years ago, it enrolled 318 freshmen from Illinois.
It hasn't happened by accident. The university developed a Chicago-specific recruiting strategy and hired two full-time recruiters to pitch the school's competitive tuition prices and convenient location about six hours away. It capitalized on the fact that there is increasing competition and a steeper price tag at Illinois' flagship public school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and that some students are looking for an alternative to the popular Big 10 schools.
Although Missouri is on a hot streak, the University of Iowa has long attracted the largest number of Illinois graduates. About 1,500 students, or 33 percent of last fall's freshman class, were from Illinois. That's about the same number as were in Eastern Illinois University's entire freshman class.
Other favorites include Indiana University, where Illinois students make up about 12 percent of freshmen, and Iowa State University, with about 11 percent of the class. Popular private schools include St. Louis University, St. Ambrose University in Iowa and Marquette University in Milwaukee.
"There are a lot of universities that have targeted Chicagoland as the land of plenty," said Michael Barron, admissions director at the University of Iowa. Facing increasing competition, Iowa assigned a full-time admissions officer to Chicago last year.
Barron conceded that although his school still draws the most students from Illinois, Missouri is currently the "hot item."
"Iowa and Indiana have always sort of gone head to head, particularly in suburban schools. Missouri has moved into that territory," Barron said.
That trend was clear on a recent fall day, when about one-quarter of the prospective students on admissions tours at Missouri were from Illinois.
The increase in Illinois students means there are more conversations about the Cubs-Cardinals baseball rivalry, and students celebrated a friend's birthday with a chocolate cake from Portillo's, a popular Chicagoland restaurant with locations throughout the suburbs. A fraternity recently added a position of Illinois rush chair just to recruit students from the Chicago area.
And when the 34,000-student university announced on its Facebook page that direct flights would begin next year between the Columbia regional airport and O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, more than 800 people liked the post. It was top news in town for weeks.
"I am very excited about it. It will be so much more convenient," said Saeda Aljazara, 19, a freshman from Lemont High School. Earlier this semester, she took the Megabus home for $54 and then flew back to St. Louis, about an hour and a half drive to Columbia.
Aljazara, who receives a nonresident academic scholarship, was discussing the new flights while studying for a midterm in her dorm lounge, and every few minutes she interrupted the conversation to point out another student who came from the Chicago area.
"On the first day of class, everyone went around the room and said where you are from, and it was like half the class was from Chicago," said Racquel Federighi, 18, of Barrington. She was one of 79 applicants from Barrington High School last year, up from seven in 2002.
Mizzou has long drawn students from throughout the country to its top-notch journalism school. But in 2002, university officials realized they needed to broaden their applicant pool as the number of Missouri high school graduates was expected to decline at the same time the university hoped to boost enrollment.
Officials decided to focus on Illinois. The school started sending more literature to high school students and visiting more college fairs. In 2004 it assigned a full-time recruiter to work exclusively in Chicago. In 2007, it assigned another.
"It has all been deliberate," said Ann Korschgen, the university's vice provost for enrollment management. Indeed, no state comes close to Illinois when exporting students to Mizzou. There are more freshmen from Illinois than all other states outside Missouri combined.
The Chicago-specific admissions brochure highlights some of the selling points. It features a map showing the distance from Chicago (384 miles), laudatory quotes from Chicago-area students and information about automatic tuition scholarships for high-achieving students from other states.
The strategy has worked. In 2002, 11 students applied from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. This past year, 174 students applied, making it the largest feeder school in Illinois. Applications from New Trier Township High School have jumped to 111, from 23, over the same time.
"Colleges identify where they should spend their recruitment resources, and it is not at all unusual to give priority to particular markets," said Barmak Nassirian, a longtime authority on college admissions. "University of Missouri has identified Chicago as such a place. It makes perfect sense in some ways."
One student who has been wooed by that strategy is Zac Shenderovsky, 17, a senior at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. During a tour, he was impressed by the picturesque campus, school spirit and strong academics. He also liked that the school has standard admissions requirements that allow prospective students to know whether they will get in. He already has been admitted to next year's freshman class.
"It just has this good feel to it," said Shenderovsky, who also is looking at Iowa, Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Dayton. There were 74 applicants from his high school last year, up from four a decade ago.
As for his part, his father, Irv, said he liked that non-Missouri students can qualify relatively easily for in-state tuition, saving $12,000 off the $22,440 annual nonresident tuition. To do so, students are required to live in Missouri for 12 consecutive months, meaning they must stay the summer after their freshman year. They also have to earn at least $2,000 a year, have a Missouri driver's license and voter registration card and meet a few other requirements.
"If you can get the in-state tuition, it is less than Illinois schools or about the same," Irv Shenderovsky said. His son also hopes to get one of the automatic $2,000 to $5,500 scholarships provided to nonresident students who score at least a 27 on the ACT college-entrance exam.
Senior Ali Burgoon, a graduate of Barrington High School, stayed with a cousin in St. Louis the summer after her freshman year — a tactic that students call "staying for residency." Now a student tour guide, Burgoon said she has noticed the increase in Chicago-area students — and with it, the number of Lou Malnati's pizzas shipped to campus.
"Everybody loves deep-dish here, and nobody around here has it," Burgoon said.
Fellow tour guide Bryan Dykes, 21, from Country Club Hills, chose Mizzou over U. of I., which he said would have cost more to attend.
"I wanted to go somewhere different," said Dykes, a psychology major and member of the black pre-law students association. "I love the atmosphere here."
At the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house, 34 of the 97 brothers are from Illinois. The fraternity has a member who is responsible for recruiting students from Illinois, and on a recent visit to the house, a student sitting on the porch was wearing Stevenson High running shorts.
The influx of students can lead to some culture clashes and friendly ribbing.
"They always talk about the Chicago hot dogs like they're something special," joked senior Alon Gilboa, a fraternity member from St. Louis. "They bring their strange foods and strange customs. I guess we have to get used to it now."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun