To understand why someone applying to the University of Illinois would seek help from a trustee or legislator -- as detailed in a Tribune series that began last week -- consider how the battle for admission has changed over the last 25 years.
In 1984, nearly 14,000 students applied for roughly 6,000 freshman spots on the Urbana-Champaign campus, few students from outside Illinois enrolled and high school graduates with decent grades had a good shot of getting in.
Today, 26,000 students are bidding for 7,100 spots, non-residents make up a growing percentage of the freshman class and applicants across the board have more impressive academic credentials than ever before, said Stacey Kostell, director of admissions.
It's not just happening in Illinois. Many of the nation's large public universities are boxed in by the confluence of demographics, skyrocketing private tuition costs and waning state funding, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
"Twenty-five years ago, these flagships were places where high school graduates with reasonable grades could expect to be admitted," he said. "But a series of factors have resulted in many of them becoming extraordinarily selective. Admissions can now feel like a pressure cooker."
A Tribune investigation revealed Friday that the U. of I.'s admissions office kept a list of clouted applicants, about 800 in the last five years, who received special consideration after trustees and lawmakers submitted their names. In some cases, applicants with subpar credentials were admitted over the protest of admissions officers, according to 1,800 pages of e-mails and other documents the Tribune obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The intense competition to get into the Urbana-Champaign campus, which may have contributed to the political maneuverings, would have been inconceivable 20 years ago.
When Bruno Velcich applied to U. of I. in the 1970s with A's and B's but few extracurricular activities -- other than his interest in cars and girls, he jokes -- the Chicago native sailed in.
But when his daughter, a senior at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, applied for admission for fall 2009, her A's and B's, ACT score in the mid-20s and spot on a winning tennis team were not enough.
"It has really changed," Velcich said with a sigh. "She was definitely more qualified than I was, and she was denied."
A variety of factors explain the change, experts say:
--Starting in the 1990s, the college-age population started to soar -- the beginning of a baby boomlet that won't decline for a couple of more years. Meanwhile, the percentage of U.S. high school students enrolling in college increased from around 60 percent in the mid-1980s to nearly 75 percent in the mid-1990s, according to data compiled by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. The result was a pronounced increase in college applications.
--As private college tuition skyrocketed, state research universities, with their solid academic reputations, world-class facilities and reasonable price tags, became increasingly attractive to accomplished students who might have otherwise attended schools like Northwestern University. (Compare $21,004-$25,156 in annual tuition, room and board at the U. of I. to the $49,791 charged by NU).
--Most flagships didn't expand enough to meet the growing demand. A major reason was that state legislatures, pressed with the mandatory costs of health care and prisons, failed to provide necessary levels of the funding for public higher education, Nassirian said.
--Many state universities have accepted a growing number of students from out of state. Non-resident students pay significantly higher tuition than residents and contribute to campus diversity. At the U. of I., the influx of out-of-state students has resulted in a lower acceptance rate for Illinois students, Kostell said. In 1989, non-residents made up 7 percent of the freshman class; in 2008, they made up 17 percent.
As a result of all the changes, the average ACT score of freshman applicants at the U. of I. increased from 25.4 to 28.2 out of a possible 36 from 1987 to 2009.
"It wasn't an all-of-a-sudden big change," Kostell said of the increasingly competitive admissions. "It's something that has slowly happened as applications increased and qualifications of applicants improved. ... Today, there are a significant number of foreigners and other non-residents who apply and are accepted."
In Illinois, the pressure cooker is felt by students, guidance counselors and the legislators and trustees who field calls from frantic families.
The bad economy makes the high value of admittance to the U. of I. even more pronounced.
"For many students, the college choice comes down to U. of I. or another Big Ten public university that could cost double coming from out of state," said Jim Conroy, college counselor at New Trier High School in Winnetka, which expects to send 68 of 1,040 seniors to the Urbana-Champaign campus this fall. "This is the one thing they all want. This is the gold-plated holy grail of a school."
Students like Kyle Strouse get shut out. When the Eagle Scout and aspiring doctor from Wheaton applied to study biochemistry with his solid credentials but not an honors transcript, he was swiftly rejected.
"I did work really hard," said Strouse, who will enroll this fall at the University of Iowa, where he was selected for a leadership program. "I guess I wasn't good enough."
It makes Marla Grossman gasp.
The 48-year-old from Buffalo Grove attended the U. of I. in the early '80s, gaining admission with good -- but not great -- grades and a 21 ACT score. As her teenage son prepares to apply to colleges, she is dismayed by the difference in the selection process at her alma mater.
"You hear horror stories about kids with a 32 ACT score not getting in," Grossman said. "It's a different world."
Tribune reporter Tara Malone contributed to this report. email@example.com