FILE - Gov. J.B. Pritzker, 12-1-20

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference in Chicago on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker inaccurately identified students leaving for college as the reason for Illinois’ population decline. Illinoisans between the ages of 26 and 54 made up 64.5% of the net decline in population from 2017-2018, the most recent year of available data.

Who’s leading the Illinois Exodus?

Official 2020 Census numbers confirmed that Illinois for the first time in 200 years lost population in the decennial U.S. Census count.

On April 26, the day Census numbers came out, Gov. J.B. Pritzker claimed he had “looked very closely” at the data and identified the root of the problem: Illinois’ population losses are due to college students leaving to attend college out of state.

The problem is, that’s dead wrong. Domestic outmigration – people leaving Illinois for other U.S. states – is the primary reason for Illinois’ population loss.

But that domestic migration is being driven by prime working-age adults, not college students. Illinoisans between the ages of 26 and 54 – and their dependents – made up 64.5% of the net decline in population from 2017-2018, the most recent year of available data.

While Illinois is losing residents of college age, these residents are the smallest age group leaving the state. In fact, those under the age of 26 only made up 6.6% of the net decline in the population.

IPI graphic

The two primary reasons these Illinoisans are choosing to leave the state are for better housing and employment opportunities, both of which have been hindered by poor public policy in Illinois. Nearly half of Illinoisans have thought about moving away, and they said taxes were their No. 1 reason.

Higher taxes harm the economy by decreasing disposable income and by discouraging businesses from investing and hiring more. Falling demand for goods and services reduces the expected profit to a business from creating additional jobs, resulting in fewer job openings for workers.

Higher taxes also mean that households save and invest less, resulting in permanently lower before-tax incomes. Economic research also reveals strong housing demand is often linked to robust employment growth. The evidence suggests taxes are an important reason for Illinois’ exodus because they reduce the availability of desirable job and housing options.

The National Center for Education Statistics also provides data on college students that confirm these results. Their statistics show that during the 2018-2019 school year, 20,198 more Illinois students attended out-of-state colleges than Illinois universities received from other states. However, it should be noted that many of these students are likely to still be considered residents of Illinois when it comes to IRS or Census Bureau data. Furthermore, Illinois has the second-highest number of in-state students as a share of the student population in the Midwest, meaning that Illinois actually has a greater concentration of in-state students at its universities than most other states.

When trying to solve a problem, the first order of business is properly diagnosing what’s going wrong. Illinois’ population loss can only be reversed by policy solutions that grow the economy and make homeownership more affordable – making it more desirable for young professionals and families to plant roots here.

Bryce Hill is a senior research analyst at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.