Sydney Whalen's first dorm meeting last fall at the University of Alabama started with a typical icebreaker: Where is everyone from?
Several hands went up when her residential adviser asked who was from Alabama and Georgia. It is the South, after all.
And what about the Chicago area?
"I'm not even kidding -- we were the majority in that group," said Whalen, a freshman from Mokena.
For Whalen, a top student at Lincoln-Way West High School in New Lenox, the choice was easy. Alabama offered her a full-tuition scholarship covering four years of undergraduate work. The University of Illinois, which she also considered, did not offer anything.
Whalen is part of a growing wave of Illinois high school seniors who, lured in part by generous financial perks, are leaving their home state for college. The number of Illinois freshman students enrolling in universities outside the state has jumped 73 percent since 2000, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
While the majority of those students end up elsewhere in the Midwest, students in recent years have been looking further afield. Alabama has emerged as an unexpected hot spot.
A decade ago, 147 Illinoisans were enrolled in Tuscaloosa. That number hit 1,623 last fall, encompassing hometowns across the state from Fox Lake to Creal Springs and from Quincy to Shawneetown.
And Alabama isn't taking just any student; many are among Illinois' brightest.
More than 700 Illinoisans from 193 cities made the president's and dean's lists at Alabama, earning at least a 3.5 GPA for fall 2017. They are meeting one another in classes, clubs and sororities, and through campus group chats.
"Two of the three girls that I'm living with right now are from Naperville, and I didn't even know them until I came down here," said Emily Mandel, a junior from Lisle. "My best friend is from Springfield. It's really funny. A ton of us are from Illinois."
Alabama's success in drawing students from hundreds of miles away is one reflection of the pressure many colleges and universities face as the number of high school graduates declines and state support for public higher education shrinks throughout the country, experts say.
Also, administrators know Illinois produces a steady stream of highly qualified young students who can boost their university's academic cachet.
Schools including Ohio State University, the University of Nebraska and the University of Colorado at Boulder have also proved more popular among Illinoisans in the past several years.
"Recruiting efforts from all out-of-state colleges has grown exponentially in the last five years," said Janet Reis, a college counselor at Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox. "The secret's out at this point."
It adds up to a challenging task for Illinois higher education leaders, who are working to stabilize schools and reverse yearslong enrollment declines exacerbated by the state budget impasse.
While universities like Alabama are opening their checkbooks to attract students, Illinois funding for basic operations remains precarious. Maintenance and construction work on campuses fall billions of dollars behind schedule, and capital funding has withered. To make up for lost state revenue, tuition and fees have increased significantly over the past several years at the state's public universities.
Even University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the state's flagship public university, has felt the effects of the increased competition for local students, despite posting record enrollment for two consecutive years.
U. of I. admitted hundreds more Illinoisans to its fall 2017 class, but neither the number of freshmen nor that of in-state students grew this year, even though it has held the line on in-state base tuition for four straight years. School leaders have been blunt as to the reasons why
"Competition from schools outside of the state with generous scholarship awards appears to be the most significant factor in the decision not to enroll at Illinois," a university statement said last year.
Enter the University of Alabama. It awarded 203 full-tuition scholarships, out of 305 total, to freshman Illinoisans in 2017, defraying more than $100,000 in costs per student. The university has nearly quintupled over the past decade the amount of institutional, non-need-based aid it awards.
"I'm paying less here than I would at a lot of in-state schools at home," said Jessica Tobin, an Alabama freshman from Oak Lawn. "That's something I hear across the board from kids from home."
Alabama's recruitment strategy grew out of dynamics familiar to Illinois schools: a drop in state funding for public universities. More than one-third of university income came from state funding as recently as 2007 -- easily the highest chunk of its overall revenue. That proportion dropped to 12.1 percent by 2016 while the share of tuition revenue inched upward, university figures show.
Rick Barth, assistant vice president for enrollment management, said that former Alabama President Robert E. Witt recognized that luring out-of-state students who pay higher tuition and fees would be a critical strategy to help sustain the university.
The university invested heavily in new dorm construction and campus modernization to entice non-Alabamans, as well as in new scholarships to make Alabama's costs comparable to students' local universities.
In 2016, Alabama spent more than $136.3 million in merit scholarships, which are not based on a family's financial need, according to university data. That is up from $28.5 million a decade ago.
For many of these students, the equation was simple. Admitted students with at least a 3.5 grade point average and a 32 ACT or 1400 SAT score received full tuition for four years. The requirements are more stringent for incoming freshmen in 2018. In 2017, the average high school GPA of incoming freshmen was 3.72; one-third of students had a 4.0; more than 40 percent of the class scored a 30 or higher on their ACTs.
Even with tuition covered, Alabama still wins, collecting around $18,000 a year from out-of-state students for room and board and other expenses, more than the sticker price for in-state students.
The result has been surging enrollment, from around the country. In 2008, nearly 70 percent of students in Tuscaloosa were from the state of Alabama. By 2017, 41 percent were local students.
This growth may position Alabama nicely to withstand some adverse demographic trends. A 2016 study from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education showed the number of Alabama high school graduates surged between 2000 and 2010. That number is projected to fluctuate and drop significantly in upcoming years.
Overall enrollment jumped from 25,580 in 2007 to 38,563 last fall.
At Alabama, Illinois now is one of the biggest feeder states and the top supplier outside the South. About 6 percent of Alabama's first-time undergraduates in 2017 were from Illinois, outnumbering students from Texas, Florida and Tennessee. Only Georgia sent more of its residents to Alabama this year, according to university data.
Barth said Illinoisans often make ideal students because they not only are academically successful, but also resilient and mature enough to handle moving far away from home.
The milder weather -- and a powerhouse football team -- only help the recruitment.
"We know if we can get them down here, and we provide the support they deserve and they experience our climate, they're going to be a very happy student, and they will persist to graduation," Barth said.
It was enough to win over Ally Shipley, 18, and her family. She is a freshman at Alabama.
"One of the most important things is, does your child enter school on a positive note?" said father Rick Shipley of Mokena. "As we think back, we saw how excited she was after she talked to prospective roommates. She was very happy to be there. She was not nervous about being that far away."
The pristine facilities, the geniality of the people and the variety of extracurricular activities also made immediate impressions for many students and parents.
"It was the first school I ever visited, and I set myself up for failure because nothing compared to Alabama after I walked on this campus," said Tobin of Oak Lawn. "It's like a campus out of a movie."
Word-of-mouth also has helped broaden Alabama's reach and influence.
Whalen, from Mokena, said Alabama was not on her radar until a friend at school mentioned it. Bob Mandel, father of Emily Mandel of Lisle, said Alabama was not a consideration until a family friend mentioned the scholarship programs. They both have recommended the university to other neighbors and friends looking at colleges.
"I had no idea how many kids went to Alabama. I never knew anybody who went there," said Brian Grady, of Elmhurst. His daughter, Kaitlyn, is a freshman there. "But once we mentioned it, somebody would say, 'Oh, so-and-so's kid went to Alabama, or 'I know someone going there next year.'"
That dynamic also materialized at O'Fallon Township High School in the St. Louis metro area, according to Assistant Superintendent Martha Weld. Ten O'Fallon alumni made the president's and dean's lists at Alabama this year.
Underlying Alabama's aggressive pursuit of out-of-state students is a steady shift nationally from need-based scholarships to merit-based aid, a change that has set off a debate among school leaders.
Aggressively recruiting nonresidents can be an awkward stance for a public flagship institution, where the primary mission ostensibly is to educate local students.
The University of Illinois, for example, devotes the majority of its institutional aid toward need-based scholarships and grants.
But the University of Wisconsin at Madison started slowly increasing its merit aid in 2016 to compete more strongly with other Big Ten schools, even though the chancellor did not agree with the practice.
The University of Kentucky is doing the opposite. After years of devoting resources to non-need-based dollars -- comprising 90 percent of the university's total financial aid -- administrators are pulling back and aiming to strike a 65-35 balance between need-based and merit aid by 2021.
Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation who has extensively studied university financial aid, said schools' reliance on merit-based aid essentially creates a bidding war for the best students.
"The only question to me is if everyone starts doing it, how effective is it?" Burd said. "It's an arms race; you have to keep increasing what you're giving. It's hard to see how this won't just keep ratcheting up."
Alabama presents a more extreme example, but it is emblematic of how Illinois as a state is losing ground in higher education.
In 2002, 29 percent of Illinois graduates chose four-year colleges out of state. By 2016, the most recent year data are available, 45.7 percent left Illinois.
About 60 percent of those students go to schools in Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan and Ohio, state data show.
In response, university and state leaders have unveiled multiple strategies to spark more local interest in Illinois schools.
But price remains an issue. In-state, full-time tuition costs and fees have increased between 27 and 56 percent at the public universities since 2008, according to state data. Federal statistics show the tuition at several Illinois schools is significantly above the median price of institutions comparable in size, enrollment and research activity.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois at Chicago, despite a tuition freeze and significant increases in institutional financial aid, remain among the priciest schools in their peer groups.
Demographic studies also show that the number of high school graduates in Illinois and throughout the Midwest will drop significantly over the next several years, leaving a smaller pool of prospective students over which states and schools compete.
Al Bowman, executive director of the state's higher education board, said schools with the most significant enrollment declines needed to bolster marketing efforts and promote the differences between the sticker price of enrollment and the net price, which is the expense once all financial aid is considered.
The posted in-state cost for Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, for example, is $28,595 for a student living on campus. The average net price for a full-time, in-state undergraduate is $17,149, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"A family searching websites and looking at cost of attendance, that nuance is lost," Bowman said. "I think the responsibility is on the institution to help families understand the difference, which can be pretty dramatic."
University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen also said more investment in local student scholarships, as well as better recruitment and promotion, will be key.
"We just need to recognize that we can't sit on our hands and be complacent," Killeen said.
Bowman also said a prolonged decrease in state investment in public colleges and universities, as well as mounting debt and legacy costs, have only added to the pressure. He noted that in the $3.4 billion budget request the education board sent to the legislature this year, half of the money would go to paying pensions.
"Investing in public higher education and our youth will pay huge dividends down the road," Bowman said. "How we retire that old debt, I think, is a conversation that we need to have as a state. Otherwise, we allow old debt to prevent us from investing in things that are important going forward."
Whatever the macro forces at play, students like Caroline Ward will always seek the best education for the best value. Ward, of Mokena, also received a full-tuition scholarship to Alabama.
"Illinois colleges, the in-state tuition is so expensive," said Ward, 19. "Students are looking for those scholarships, and they're going to take them wherever they could get them."