CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — After years of pursuing higher-paying international students and watching in-state enrollment fall, the University of Illinois' flagship campus shifted course this year, increasing financial aid for students from Illinois but also taking the unusual step of accepting lower test scores.
An analysis by The Associated Press found that ACT test scores for incoming freshmen from Illinois dropped for the first time in at least a decade.
The school's strategy followed pressure from lawmakers, university trustees and parents to enroll more in-state students, and it appears to have worked: The number went up by 11 percent.
The $5.4 million increase in financial aid — primarily for low-income families and under-represented groups — comes at a time when the university's financial picture is uncertain, primarily due to a state-government cash crisis.
"In thinking about our enrollment, we did ask ourselves, have we raised the bar just a little too high?" said Charles Tucker, vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation. "We always want to attract the best and brightest students here, and we want to provide a great education for them. But, you know, we also asked ourselves, are we biased a little too much that way?"
In recent years, many state universities around the country have actively recruited more out-of-state and international students to help make up for dwindling state financial support and pressure to compete for top faculty. But those universities have been pushed by school leaders and others to enroll more students from their home states.
At the University of Iowa, for example, regents set funding levels based in part on in-state enrollment after in-state freshman enrollment fell below 50 percent. And a Washington state lawmaker pushed through legislation that tied the University of Washington's ability to increase enrollment to maintaining minimum levels of in-state students.
In Illinois, some parents, students and educators had been shocked certain students couldn't get into the U of I.
"We've got kids who are getting 30 or better ACT (scores) who are not getting scholarships from the U of I," said Amy Malone, a school counselor at Monticello High School, about 15 miles west of the campus.
State Rep. Chad Hays, an eastern Illinois Republican, says he has raised the issue with university administrators and believes more kids from Chicago — its public schools, in particular — should be getting in.
Illinois has been among the U.S. universities that have recruited most heavily overseas, with 5,295 students from China this school year, which is 12 percent of the total enrollment.
Even if in-state students are admitted, it's often cheaper to go out of state. Tuition for in-state students costs $12,036 annually, a figure trustees froze this year to attract more Illinois residents. But a student from another state will pay $27,196, and an international student will pay $28,026.
The university proudly announced in September that the number of in-state students in its freshman class was up to 5,490 — 72.6 percent of all new freshmen and 563 more than the previous fall. But the school also enrolled 7.5 percent more international freshman — 1,120.
The average ACT score among in-state freshmen fell from 28.86 in 2014 to 28.28 this fall. But it's a small decline, and one year at that level won't affect the university's status in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings, said Robert Morse, the annual higher education scorecard's chief data strategist.
The school's changes were noticeable. Sixty-nine students from Lyons Township High School, in Chicago's western suburbs, enrolled at the university this fall, up from 59 a year earlier.
College coordinator Lianne Musser said those accepted to business and engineering programs were as qualified as those from previous years, but in other programs, "We had maybe a couple that kind of raised eyebrows that they got in," she said.
Sophomore business major Megan Erickson says she doesn't mind a slight drop in test scores, but said lowering them again those would be a problem.
"I don't think we should have those students here because they're not going to make it here," the suburban Chicago native said.
University President Timothy Killeen has made it clear there aren't as many in-state students as he would like.
If that means another small decrease in test scores, Tucker, the vice provost, is OK with that.
"I wouldn't want us to start on a downward path," he said. "But if what we saw is a little ripple as we kind of level out here, I'd be happy with that."
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: @davidmercerAP