Many public research universities face a dilemma: How do you balance a commitment to educate in-state students with the value that out-of-state applicants contribute to the university?
As Nick Anderson illustrates recently in the Washington Post, the facts are clear. Public (and private) research universities contribute mightily to a state’s economy, providing a better educated workforce and serving as a principal economic engine, an incubator of new ideas and industries, and a contributor to the social and cultural climate of their states.
In a knowledge-driven economy, the role of research universities has become even more important strategically to states seeking to adapt their citizens to the demands of a global workforce.
Out-of-State Students Help Keep Costs Lower for In-State Students
Anderson notes that out-of-state students: “ . . . diversify campuses, bringing fresh perspectives and life experiences. They fill seats in states with stagnant or declining population. And of course, they pay more.” The latter is especially telling given declining state support for public colleges and universities in the 21st century.
As Mr. Anderson reports: “Those from elsewhere bring revenue that helps support that discount (enjoyed by in-state students) . . . College Board data shows that tuition and fees for in-state students at public universities this year average $9,970. For out-of-state students, the average is $25,620.” This $16,000 difference is significant but also carries with it some obvious political drawbacks.
Declining Share of In-State Students Can Be Politically Difficult
In a number of states, there is ongoing discussion about giving too many seats away to out-of-state students or even students from economically advantaged sectors of the state. In Virginia, this decades-old debate regularly extends to how many students to accept to the University of Virginia from Northern Virginia — specifically, Fairfax, Loudon, and Arlington counties — where well-prepared applicants seek admission.
It may be that public sector leaders are incrementally changing their enrollment recruiting policies based on their need to find revenue lost in recent state appropriations.
This practice can create an optics problem for public universities where wealthier students typically do less to contribute to socio-economic diversity than those receiving Pell grants. Anderson reports, for example that the University of Michigan serves almost 29,000 undergraduates but only “15 percent come from families with enough financial need to qualify for Pell grants.”
At the same time, Michigan’s in-state share of freshman has declined from 64 percent in 2006 to 51 percent ten years later.
There is an obvious benefit, especially if states retain college-educated graduates after commencement, including those from out-of-state. It certainly improves the employment outlook for prospective employers and those seeking to remain, expand, or relocate to the state.
Larger Decreases in In-State Freshmen from Disproportionately Smaller States
It may also be that public sector recruitment policies depend on where you sit at the table. In the Washington Post story, those with the largest decrease in in-state freshmen were from disproportionately small states – Vermont, Alabama, North Dakota, Delaware, New Hampshire, Mississippi, Rhode Island, West Virginia, South Carolina, Oregon and Arkansas.
When you combine small or stagnant population growth with erratic state appropriations, it makes sense to tap students from neighboring states or even nationally where there is a much deeper prospective student applicant pool.
Larger States Aim for More Balance of In- and Out-of-State Students
There also appears to be a second group seeking to maintain a 50/50 balance in their entering classes. These states often have large research universities and complex state political environments. They include states like Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Indiana, Wisconsin and Kansas.
If all politics is local, it may be that many of these public research universities face an optics problem since the purpose of public universities historically was to provide first-generation students with access to a college education. Today, there is no significant socio-economic differentiation in first-generation students, whether at public or private colleges.
Outliers. like the University of California system, the University of Texas, the University of Florida, and the University of Georgia, seem to be more a response to the size of their large in-state applicant pool or the development of unique scholarship programs that encourage in-state students at public universities. State programs like free college tuition in public universities may further change the mix in states like New York and Tennessee. It’s simply too early to tell what the long-term impact of these new programs might be.
Whatever the future holds, there are a number of conclusions.
- First, state policies vary widely and are further affected by demographic changes occurring within the state.
- Second, in most states, the optics matter as public universities continue to wrestle with how to provide reliable, sufficient access for in-state applicants to public universities, especially flagship research institutions.
- Finally, the impact on higher education, including private higher education, is unclear as public universities broaden their applicant pool with strategies and tactics to support them that mirror the recruiting strategies of their private counterparts.
In the end, change is inevitable. It will be important to watch the impact on non-flagship publics, community colleges, and private institutions as a multi-dimensional chess game plays out in a declining applicant pool.