COLUMBIA, Mo.—— 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.
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.