Out-of-State Enrollment Rises at State Flagship Universities

Farran Powell

More public colleges and universities -- especially state flagships -- are increasing out-of-state enrollment to offset state budget cuts in higher education.

Some state flagships began accepting more out-of-state students in response to the 2008 financial cris i s since these students pay double -- or more -- in tuition than those in state, and that trend continues, college advisers and higher education consultants say.

"Out of state pay roughly $15,000 more in tuition, and that's a lot of extra money per year that these colleges can use to finance their programs," says Victoria Tillson Evans, founder of Bethesda, Maryland-based Distinctive College Consulting, who advises high school students on the college admissions process.

College advisers say the swelling applicant pool coupled with the push to increase tuition revenue increases competition at some state schools -- especially for in-state students.

Schools enro ll more nonresidents to increase their academic profile and national reputation while generating additional revenue, says Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, vice president of enrollment at Otterbein University, who worked previously as an enrollment officer at Ohio State University--Columbus.

"This creates a squeeze on strong but not outstanding in-state students," Blackburn-Smith says.

But some state universities face state laws known as mandates that cap the number of out-of-state students. The University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, for instance, must limit out-of-state enrollment to 18 percent. The school jeop a rdizes its state funding if it exceeds that cap.

Acceptance at a public school governed by one of these mandates tends to be more competitive for out-of - state students, experts say.

Sean Moore, founder of college financial planning service SMART College Funding , says part of the problem is flagship schools aren't growing at the same pace as their applicant pool and this makes these schools more selective.

"If the institution's primary goal is to increase net tuition revenue, then the in-state student may suffer," says Tim Fournier, managing director of at Huron Consulting Group, a consulting firm that works with colleges on branding and marketing for attracting prospective students.

The University of Alabama--Tuscaloosa represents this trend with in-state students making up 37 percent of the class of 2018 compared with 73 percent in-state freshmen in the 200 4 -200 5 school year, according to U.S. News data.

The school has emphasized recruiting out-of-state students for the last 12 years, says Linda Bonnin, vice president of strategic communications at UA--Tuscaloosa.

Bonnin says the school doesn't have a specific numerical goal for out-of-state enrollment and the pool of high school applicants in state has shr u nk in recent years.

"Last fall 36 percent of our freshman class had a score of 30 or higher on the ACT, so the quality of each entering class is very important to us," the UA--Tuscaloosa spokeswoman says.

The average high school GPA for a typical UA--Tuscaloosa student rose to 3.7 in 2014 from 3.4 in the 200 4 -2005 school year, an analysis of U.S. News data show.

The home of the Crimson Tide, which has won four national football titles since 2009, charged out-of-state students $25,950 for tuition and fees, compared with $10,170 for in-state students during the 2015-2016 school year -- a $15,780 annual difference.

Athletic visibility is one marketing tool these schools use to entice nonresidents, enrollment managers say.

"Successful athletics programs -- especially in football and basketball -- are powerful boosts to institutional brand awareness and recognition," says Fournier. "There are a lot of students -- in state and out of state -- who want to feel part of that success."

Kathryn Catina, 20, of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, says she was lured to UA--Tuscaloosa because of the large campus and the school's winning streak.

"I did choose Alabama in part because of their 'pride and tradition' in regards to the football program," says the communications major.

University of South Carolina--Columbia, known for the Gamecocks football team, is another example of a flagship with a national athletic presence. The school shrank its incoming freshman class to 50 percent in state for fall 2014 -- a 34 percentage point decrease from its incoming class 10 years prior , according to U.S. News data.

Ray Brown, dean of admission at Texas Christian University, another football powerhouse, credits the success of its Horned Frogs football team for its growth in out-of-state enrollment. The private college increased its out-of-state attendance by 20 percent in the last six years, he says.

"This is the type of shift very few schools would experience in even a 40-year period. We've experienced it in six," Brown says.

[Discover why public school may not be the cheapest college option.]

For prospective students interested in attending a flagship school, here are some considerations.

A private college might be cheaper than attending a public school as an out-of-state student. "In the American mindset, everybody believes that public colleges are less expensive than private ones -- that's actually a myth for many low- or middle-income families," Evans from Distinctive College Consulting says.

College advising consultants say many private schools -- especially smaller ones -- often offer deeper discounts to most families. And these schools tend to have fewer applicants than flagship schools.

"Private schools are often throwing big incentives or scholarships to families that don't qualify for aid," SMART College Funding's Moore says.

Attending a flagship school as an out-of-state student may be cheaper in some circumstances. A family who doesn't qualify for financial aid might consider a top-ranked public university over an expensive private school, Evans says.

"They can get a top-tier education from one of those universities," the Bethesda-based consultant says. "But it can be just as difficult as trying to get into one of the Ivies -- especially if you're looking at Berkeley, Michigan, UVA or UCLA."

But flagship universities do offer scholarships to recruit some out-of-state students, college advisers say.

[Explore resources and tips on finding college scholarships.]

Joseph Nelson, 20, of Elkorn, Nebraska, picked UA--Tuscaloosa over University of Nebraska--Lincoln because he was offered numerous scholarships to attend.

"The scholarships and stipends they gave made going to school there cheaper than going in state at Nebraska. So it became an easy decision," the chemical engineering major says.

And sometimes the cost isn't as much for attending out of state -- particularly if the school is in the Midwest, Moore says.

In-state students interested in a competitive state school should show the admissions office interest. College coaches say high school students interested in attending a competitive public school should take advantage of their proximity, visit the campus, attend information sessions and speak to an admissions representative.

"If you're reaching out to the admissions office, you're becoming more of a human being to them rather than a name on a piece of paper," Evans says. "That can definitely help."

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Farran Powell is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering paying for college and graduate school. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at fpowell@usnews.com.