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.

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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.

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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.