Wooing small-town students has become big challenge for UI
Sarah Sellars grew up in rural Winchester where her parents raised cattle and hogs and planted corn and soybeans in the rich soil of the Illinois River Valley.
Her neighbors? Her grandparents.
Her aunt and uncle and cousins live just down the road — called Sellars Road, of course.
With her sights set on becoming a farm manager, Sellars knew she should apply to the University of Illinois, home to "the best ag school in the state." But when she was offered a spot in the Class of 2017, it took some time to formally accept.
"I was nervous to leave home. We're a tight family," she said.
While attending a lecture in the Romanesque Altgeld Hall last fall, Billy Hatfield looked around and realized the number of his fellow students in the calculus class (225) was more than the entire student body in his hometown high school (about 160).
"That took a little getting used to," Hatfield said of the large classes. He came from a school where, in his final year, staff had to create an advanced math class to accommodate a small group of students who had taken all the other possible math courses available.
A native of Dahlgren, population 500, in southern Illinois, Hatfield said several classmates went on to work at the new coal mine in rural Hamilton County, some took jobs at a tire manufacturer while others enrolled at nearby Rend Lake Community College.
Of the 37 in his graduating class, three of them would go on to the UI, which was "an anomaly," he said.
Less is more
As students from small, rural counties in the state, Sellars and Hatfield represent a small percentage — one that is shrinking — of the UI's student body.
Last year the University of Illinois celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, federal legislation that established land grant institutions. The aim of the legislation was to help states create universities for the sons and daughters of the state, those who were not part of the elite and monied class.
More than 150 years later, at a time when the sticker price for a year at the UI has reached $25,000 (including tuition, fees and room and board), while other universities, especially private ones, are heavily recruiting top students in Illinois, where parts of the state still are recovering from economic recession, and in areas where there may not be a steady "pipeline" of students going to the UI, fewer high school graduates from the state's rural counties are making their way each year to the University of Illinois.
The number of counties in the state that have sent an average of two or fewer students per year in a five-year period to any of the UI's three campuses has increased from 13 to 23. Those counties are mostly in southern and western Illinois.
When looking at the Illinois counties classified as "noncore," by the U.S. Census Bureau, which means they're not part of core-based metro or micro-urban areas, those 37 counties are sending fewer students to the state's flagship university. In 1993, there were 1,048 from these non-core counties attending the UI. That slipped to 1,017 in 2003 and even further to 600 for the 2013-2014 school year.
"It is a longstanding concern," said Stacey Kostell, admissions director for the Urbana-Champaign campus. "It truly is important to us as a campus and a land-grant institute to represent the state," she said.
During the admission process, officers review where applications are coming from, where they're admitting from and, before they close the admissions process, they ask if they are representing the state.
"It is challenging," Kostell said.
There have always been counties in Illinois from which the university does not receive many applications, and it's not always clear how to overcome that, she said.
"Money is a real factor," said Heather Wilson, guidance counselor at Brown County schools in western Illinois.
Especially in the last 10 years, Wilson said she's seen an "increased consciousness" among students and parents about getting the most value out of their college degree. How much are they going to get out of their degree compared with how much they invested in it? That's what people are asking, she said.
In recent years she's seen more student go the community college route first instead of directly to a four-year university. Especially among students who may not be sure of their career plans.
"I want to go into physical therapy and I feel like being in a city when I graduate there will be more career opportunities," said 17-year-old Megan Limkeman of Mt. Sterling in Brown County, one of the underrepresented counties. She applied to Southern Illinois University as well as the UI. She plans to attend the UI's College of Applied Health Sciences in Urbana in the fall.
"When I visited it, I just loved the campus," she said.
Limkeman said she was the only one of her friends to seriously consider the UI.
"I think a lot of people are almost scared to branch out," said Limkeman, who moved to Illinois from California about three years ago.
"Cost is a big issue," for her peers, but with her father in the military, Limkeman was able to receive some financial aid, she said.
"If I didn't get that, the U of I may not have happened or it would have been more difficult" and she would have opted to start at a community college and then transfer, she said.
Limkeman is excited to meet "a whole bunch of new people" this fall, but for some students from rural parts to the state, it can be intimidating, said Tammy Powers, guidance director at Newton Community High School in Jasper County, about 90 miles south of Urbana.
"The trend right now is private schools," Powers said.
Seniors in Newton have accepted offers of admission from Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University, Millikin University and the University of Evansville.
In recent years she has seen students receive enough financial aid from private schools that the cost ends up becoming equal to attending the UI, she said.
When a senior is weighing the decision on whether to go to smaller college or one with 40,000 students and it'll cost the same to go to both, size is a definitely a factor in his or her decision, she said.
"When you're from a small county — there are 440 students in our high school and we're the only high school in (Jasper) county — and you go to the U of I, that is extremely intimidating," Powers said.
"I think the campuses are out recruiting these students but for whatever reasons we're not enrolling a lot of students from that area," said Marilyn Marshall, assistant vice president for academic affairs.
How much cost and the impact of the economic downturn have on a student's decision to apply or accept admission is "something we need to find out," Marshall said.
The university has offered scholarships to high-achieving students coming from underrepresented counties like Brown, Jasper, Massac and the 20 others.
The President's Awards Program, which dates back to 1985, offers significant financial aid to admitted students who meet certain academic requirements and come from traditionally underrepresented groups such as African Americans, American Indians and Latinos. It's also offered to students from underrepresented counties.
Of the 26 students enrolled on the Urbana campus from the underrepresented counties, 21 are President's Award Program recipients, Kostell said.
Access to courses
"A lot of people think people from rural areas might not keep up with those who've had honors classes from high school but I don't think that's the case," Sellars said.
She has "no regrets. I am so happy I decided to come here." She's kept up her high grade point average and her scholarships in her first year at the UI.
Unlike at a large wealthy suburban high school where students can enroll in numerous advanced placement and honors classes, students from some smaller schools may face challenges obtaining the coursework needed for college admission. For example, a student needs to complete a foreign language class but it's only offered at the same time as the math course needed.
In those situations Brown said counselors will be sure to add a note in the student's reference letter, stating that the student wanted to take a certain course, but was unable due to scheduling constraints.
In reviewing a student's application to the UI, admissions officers look at whether or not the student took advantage of what their high school offered.
"We never penalize a student because the high school does not offer something," Kostell said.
Community college connections
Without a pipeline of high school students going directly to a specific college, it can be difficult for students from smaller schools to become as familiar with a university if many of their older siblings or friends of siblings did not head there, according to Eric Lichtenberger, a research professor at the Illinois Education Research Council at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.
In addition to working on building relationships with high school teachers and guidance counselors to capture those high school juniors and seniors, UI officials are exploring ways to bring students from underrepresented areas to the university via community colleges and the transfer portal.
Students from rural locations are more likely to enroll in a community college than their counterparts in urban and suburban areas, Lichtenberger said.
Final numbers are still being determined but Kostell said the admissions office has seen a decent increase this year in the number of applications from students wanting to transfer to the UI. Many are coming from places like Parkland College and the College of DuPage, but many also are coming from more downstate community colleges such as Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois Central College in East Peoria and Lake Land College in Mattoon.
"We have work to do, but I think we've made huge progress" on better informing students about opportunities for transferring to the UI, she said.
Marilyn Marshall with the vice president's office, which oversees academics on all three campuses, said university staff are interested in reaching out particularly to the southern part of the state. Officials met recently with those from Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
Marshall also said they are considering partnering with the UI Extension, which works with 4-H clubs across the state, on exploring ways for students to learn more about studying at the UI.
The Urbana campus does have an admissions representative dedicated to southern Illinois and they're trying to work more closely with schools to find out more about getting more information to students. Colleges like the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences have staff that also do a lot of outreach to rural parts of the state through clubs like 4-H and other programs, she said.
"Like anything for us to be successful it can't just be the admissions office. It has to be a collaborative effort," Kostell said.
And if another school like the University of Southern Indiana has created a pipeline in recent years in which students are coming home and telling other students about the school, the UI "needs to communicate with that population about Illinois and for the same price what they can get at Illinois but maybe they can't get at Southern Indiana," Kostell said.