The Latest Wrinkle in College Admissions

State schools are increasingly recruiting out-of-state students who pay higher fees. But is this fair?

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The College of William and Mary / AP

The Wren Building on the campus of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Are you pissed off that so many young people are slipping across borders and enrolling in America’s public universities, where they’re taking coveted slots away from local kids? You’re not alone. But don’t call Mitt Romney for help — this particular furor isn’t about illegal immigrants. It’s about public universities recruiting more and more out-of-state students, who often pay as much as three times what in-state residents do for the privilege of attending the same institution.

(MORE: Five Biggest Myths About College Admission)

While admissions officers sometimes dress up their reasons for recruiting out-of-staters (“geographic diversity,” anyone?), the real reason is money. University officials will privately acknowledge the integral role out-of-state tuition plays in making ends meet. In a survey released in September by Inside Higher Education, half of the admissions officers at big state schools reported substantially increasing their focus on recruiting out-of-state student during the past year. And that survey comes on the heels of a Wall Street Journal report in July that showed eight states (Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wyoming) already get more than 40% of their students from out of state. At the University of Vermont, it’s 67%. That’s a lot even for a small state. One factor that’s helping fuel the trend: even the higher out-of-state tuition can be a bargain relative to private schools, making good public schools in other states an attractive option for many parents and students.

This has become a hot topic in state legislatures. For instance, some in North Carolina want to raise the cap on out-of-state enrollment, which is currently limited to 18% of incoming freshman. The rule applies to schools like the University of North Carolina, with its many athletes and prestigious Morehead-Cain scholars, and makes it a highly competitive admissions process for non-residents who want to go there. Elsewhere in the country, the influx of non-residents has made it harder for in-state students to get in. In Virginia, some politicians are pushing to implement a stricter cap on non-resident students as parents grow increasingly frustrated that their children are being turned away from the state’s top schools while students from states like New Jersey and New York pour in. Responding to parental angst, one state legislator recently referred to Virginia’s College of William and Mary as the “State University of New Jersey, Williamsburg campus.”

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The disconnect between frustrated families and revenue-hungry school officials is not surprising. The fiscal dividend out-of-state students provide is much more visible to school officials balancing budgets than it is to parents watching the mailbox for admissions letters. But the financial pressure is inescapable. I’m on the board of directors for a foundation at the University of Virginia that supports the college of education there, and not a meeting goes by where the fiscal situation — and the need to generate money from sources other than the state treasury — isn’t on the agenda. That’s because public colleges and universities find themselves squeezed today by competing goals: meeting their public purpose of providing access for students and serving as academic hubs within their states but at the same time generating more revenue as states cut back on financial support.

Admitting more out-of-state students is a logical market response. But this responsiveness carries a price. State residents understandably expect their children to be able to find a spot in a good state school and are frustrated when they can’t. Citizens, meanwhile, expect public college and universities to offer a variety of courses of study — for instance, liberal arts and humanities — rather than only more vocationally driven majors such as business, marketing, or accounting. Yet disciplines that are less popular or can’t raise a lot of money will struggle if every-department-for-themselves becomes the ethos.

(MORE: Why College Tuition Should Be Regulated)

So the nonresident versus resident quandary points up the larger questions facing public higher education. Balancing access, quality, and controlling costs is a tall order. Few will argue that today’s colleges and universities are run as efficiently as they could be. But don’t let that obscure the hard decisions that increasing fiscal constraints at the state level will force states to make.

Today it’s resident versus non-resident. But soon the fight may be over which of the less lucrative academic departments or majors should be cut. People say they want the public sector to act more like the private sector. In public higher education, this is what it’s starting to look like.

1 comments
Getethics
Getethics

It is not simply a matter of out of state students. A SUNY school in the Southern Tier has gone all out to recruit International students.  There are special advisors and other resources (paid for by NYers tax money and federal taxes), They pay about $4000 more than out of staters and about 13,000 more than instate. I guess the local school gets to keep the extra money and does not seem to care about the fairness issues. What are the fairness issues? By the time a kid is ready for college his/her family has been paying into the system for years in the form of taxes. Those taxes are now being used to subsidize the education of international students who can often not construct a single sentence in English without a translator. And here is the kicker-many NYers are turned away from the school that boasts being a public Ivy  requiring very competitive SAT scores  for New Yorkers but not for international students. International students don't have to take the SAT or ACT (and to those claiming that the tofel is similar-that is simply bogus. Even the testing agencies say that the TOEFl is only a test of English). So, scores that are being used to help reject NYers are not even required of the internationals. Amazing right? And, tuition does not come close to paying the real cost of the education. So, a parent who has paid taxes for the past 18 years may have a kid rejected from the SUNY of  choice and, in that students place, is an International student who is being subsidized by that person's tax dollars while  never having to pay into the system( taxes), who gains admission without having to take the tests that kept the NY out and who  will not pay taxes after graduating. And because Albany is allowing the school to keep a few of those dollars, there  is a lot of singing "Internationals" and "globalization" which has replaced the administrations old mantra of "diversity" even as the number of African American students at that same school gets lower each year.