Getting a third Illinois university into the Big Ten Conference is the solution two Republican state senators want to explore in order to keep Illinois students from leaving for out-of-state colleges.
The proposal from State Sens. Michael Connelly (R-Naperville) and Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) would create a commission that would study the possibility of one of the state’s existing public universities joining the conference.
Their reasoning is that admission to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University has become so selective that Illinois is losing talented students.
“They’re going to Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin—all fine schools—but a number of them then never come back,” Connelly said.
Connelly named Illinois State University as a viable candidate, citing its central location within the state and the recent upgrade of Hancock Stadium.
ISU would have to clear several obstacles to be considered. Its football program plays at the lower Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level—and even with the renovations at Hancock, the smallest stadium in the Big Ten, Northwestern’s Ryan Field, has more than three times its capacity.
When the Big Ten has expanded, the motivation has often been to establish a new presence in a major media market. For instance, the conference’s addition of Rutgers University will give it a foothold near New York City. ISU doesn’t offer that incentive, but Connelly believes another school in the state might.
“Actually, there is a candidate that would meet that criteria, and it’s SIU Edwardsville,” Connelly said.
While the school is located within the St. Louis market, it presents even greater challenges than ISU. SIU Edwardsville is much younger than any Big Ten member (established in 1950) as well as smaller (current enrollment is under 14,000 students), and it has no football program, not even on the FCS level.
The only non-Big Ten school in the state in the Football Bowl Subdivision is Northern Illinois University, but Connelly seems lukewarm about that option.
“Yeah, NIU certainly has the land around it,” Connelly said, “but we were kind of looking first at….a centrally located school. ISU fits that. (SIU Edwardsville) fits that. But certainly all the state schools would be considered in this feasibility study.”
If the bill were to pass, a commission made up of lawmakers, educators, and students from Illinois that have left for out-of-state Big Ten schools, would study the feasibility of getting another Illinois school into the conference. Their report would be due to the General Assembly at the beginning of next year.
The legislation has already made it through committee, and it will be up for a full vote in the Senate later this year.