Illinois college-aged residents, graduates flee state by thousands


Young Illinois residents have been leaving for surrounding states with cheaper public university tuition and lower property taxes in massive numbers. (Victoria Williamson | The DePaulia)

By the tens of thousands, college-age residents in Illinois are fleeing rising property taxes, underfunded public schools, and desolate job opportunities; they are opting instead to attend out-of-state universities or seek employment where property taxes do not feast on their livability.

Illinois is now the U.S. leader in exporting first-year students to outside colleges. In addition to this exodus of first-years, graduates of universities in Illinois are having difficulty finding a job that can support the cost of living in Illinois or Chicago.

Adjunct journalism professor John McCarron says that a major factor for the student exodus is because public universities in Illinois are not competitively priced with some of the surrounding states, like Iowa.

In addition to unaffordable tuition, McCarron cites the state’s underfunded pension liabilities as an underlying cause for why Illinois has become unaffordable for many.

“The elephant in the room is the pension situation,” McCarron said. “More and more of the tax money that would go to operating, like building roads or running the prisons, or running the state universities, are being drawn off to our pension obligations.”

McCarron says the state constitution forbids limiting pensions already earned, but there could be policies in place to restrict future pension obligations.

Emily Flock graduated from DePaul in 2017, when she moved to San Francisco to pursue better job opportunities and to find comfortable weather by getting away from the frozen tundra that is Chicago.

“I’m in mapping and geographic information systems,” Flock said. “From what I’ve seen, most of the positions for the major tech companies I want to work for are outside of Chicago, mostly Silicon Valley, where I am now.”

While her living expenses are high in San Francisco, Flock says that the job options give her more opportunity to advance in her field. Looking back on her decisions thus far, Flock says she may have gone to a different state if she could do college differently.

“I wanted to be close to home and my parents,” Flock said. “I needed that safety net at that point in my life. But now that I’m away, I almost regret not leaving sooner.”

Finding a solution to the hastening departure of Illinois students has been a central topic in the race for governor. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign issued a statement to The DePaulia regarding their stance on keeping graduates in the state.

“Many recent graduates are burdened with student loans, they cannot afford to wait for greater economic opportunity. But businesses in our state are slow to hire new workers because they’re struggling with high taxes and burdensome regulations. That’s why Gov. Rauner is committed to making Illinois more economically competitive and ensuring the state has a lower cost of living by reforming property taxes and removing government mandates on local communities. Today’s students are innovative and hard-working, they just need a chance to succeed, and Governor Rauner will work hard every day to ensure they can thrive after graduation.” Press Secretary for Rauner’s campaign Alex Browning wrote.

J.B. Pritzker’s campaign, meanwhile, says that Rauner has failed to ensure affordable public education. The campaign issued a statement to The DePaulia.

“Bruce Rauner has led an all-out assault on our colleges and universities, slashing funding for these critical institutions, forcing their bonds to junk status, and driving students from our state with his attacks on MAP grants. I have comprehensive plans to reverse the exodus of young people from the state by providing workers and students with the tools they need for success. My plans would provide quality, equitable public education and stable and affordable higher education while expanding job creation and economic opportunity for communities throughout Illinois. By bringing stability to our state and investing in our communities, I am confident we can help our home-grown talent thrive and attract new talent to Illinois.”

McCarron says the influx of large corporations coming to Chicago is an optimistic turn for the state’s future.

“I can never remember all theses corporations crowding into the Loop and also the Near West Side and Fulton Market,” McCarron said. “I suspect what is behind it is the need to hire and keep a workforce that is digitally literate and can work with this big data which allows for targeted marketing.”

McCarron believes that while students are leaving in large numbers, the increase in corporations establishing themselves in Chicago will also bring in a young, technically-minded workforce.

McCarron says DePaul’s locations in highly sought city real estate helps to keep students in Illinois, even as a private university.

“(DePaul) moves so much of its campus to the South Loop that it has a certain cache for being a hip, urban place to go to college,” McCarron said. “Frankly, if you’ve been to Columbus, Ohio or Champaign, Illinois, those are great universities, but who really wants to eat at the Pizza Hut every weekend when you have a vibrant, cultural, young persons thing going on in Chicago.”

McCarron says that DePaul could still stand to be more selective in their academic recruitment.

“There is some consolidation that is necessary, and I think DePaul would do well to do like Loyola and move up the food chain of academic excellence.”