Public schools draw fewer state students

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USA TODAY’s exclusive database reveals which public universities have sharply decreased their in-state students in recent years.

Chelsea Marsh spends most of her days networking with high school kids. As a regional recruiter, her job is to spread awareness about the University of Alabama, and the institution prides itself on customer service, Marsh said.

So, she mans a table at college fairs. She schedules meetings with high school counselors and individual students. She meets with parents and students at local coffee shops, for hours. 

“We just really value making real connections with students,” Marsh said.

She doesn’t do any of this in Alabama, though; Marsh works in South Carolina.

Marsh is one of 40 regional recruiters for the University of Alabama, and one of hundreds belonging to universities all over the country. The dynamic of college admissions and enrollment has changed, as flagship public institutions insistently cross state lines to recruit more students. 

Enrollment of out-of-state or international students is on the rise—in some places sharply.

More than 240 public universities across the country admitted fewer in-state students in 2017 than they did just five years earlier, and for 46 of those, the share of in-state students is down by at least 10%, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

The data included public, four-year institutions offering baccalaureate degrees and above, not including military academies.

At the University of Alabama, out-of-state enrollment increased by more than 28% from 2012 to 2017—and that was nothing compared to University of Maryland-University College’s 37% or Tennessee State University’s 41%.

Every state in the U.S. has become a battleground for universities sparring to attract the most geographically diverse population, recruiting on each others’ home turf and offering merit scholarships that compete with in-state tuition. For college-bound students and their parents, this can mean opportunity: greater prospects for new experiences and financial savings. It can also mean being put at a disadvantage in their own state.

Explore the data: See what’s happening at your school or colleges in your state

More: Despite trends, some public colleges say they are fighting to keep in-state students home

Residents in some states have raised concerns in recent years, demanding that universities limit out-of-state enrollment. Their goal is to make sure the universities have enough space available to serve the students of taxpaying residents.

The University of California system, for instance, had become well-known for its increasing selectivity and its skyrocketing population of students from other states and countries. In-state students at the University of California-Davis decreased by more than 20% from 2012 to 2017. In the latter year, public backlash prompted the state-run system’s regents to vote to cap the share of non-California students at 18%.

The University of California at Berkeley.

The University of California at Berkeley.

Bob Collowân / Wikimedia Commons

Competition at a state’s flagship university has a direct influence on decisions made by college-bound students and their parents. Craig Meister, a counselor and admissions professional of 16 years, said the selectivity of states’ flagship schools often drives lower-income students to attend less selective universities in the state. For example, as in-state enrollment at the University of California campuses decline, the California State University system is flourishing with golden state residents. 

Sometimes, Meister said, the compromise can offer an avenue for students to get into their flagship eventually. It is often easier for students to transfer into a state school from somewhere else, than to be accepted as a first-time freshman. This is common practice at the University of California-Davis, according to a spokesperson. Meister sees it happening in his home state of Maryland, too. 

“There’s definitely situations now, where at the most selective public university in the state, it’s not really as much of a priority any more to really serve their state residents,” Meister said. 

Why the focus on attracting out-of-state students in the first place? Expanding enrollment is one of the most visible measures of success at a university, but that has become much more difficult in recent years, as goals for growing the student body outpace the available supply of college-bound high school seniors. 

Institutions like the University of Alabama say they see out-of-state recruiting as a necessity to supplement their in-state numbers. For years, the National Student Clearinghouse has reported declining enrollment at institutions far and wide. Additionally, reports released in conjunction with the College Board show that in Alabama, 1,014 fewer SAT test-takers enrolled in college in 2017 than in 2012. 

“It’s always a goal to increase enrollment,” Marsh said. “It’s become harder to pull those students from Alabama, because they’re just not physically there.”

It is also easier than ever for students to move beyond state boundaries for education. With social media and digital recruiting platforms like CollegeReel and InitialView, high school students are able to connect with faraway universities with ease. 

A small number of state-run universities are beginning to provide breaks on out-of-state tuition, or eliminate differences altogether, for students they want to recruit from other states. For example, the University of Maine—which decreased in-state enrollment by 31.51% in five years—offers a Flagship Match Scholarship for academically qualified students from select states. Recipients of this scholarship need only pay the in-state tuition at their state’s flagship, rather than the typical $29,310 out-of-state tuition. 

Most colleges welcome out-of-state students. The University of California brought in an additional $27,000 for every out-of-state student in 2017, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

“It’s a business decision,” Meister said.

Out-of-staters also bring the benefit of geographic diversity to a campus, a factor that many institutions are increasingly cognizant of. With out-of-state students making up nearly 70% of freshmen enrollment, the University of Alabama can now boast of one of the most geographically diverse student populations in the nation. Counselors and educators see this as a major selling point and an asset that parents and students can appreciate.

“Overall, I think it is better for schools to be diverse in every way they can,” said Laurie Weingarten, co-founder and director of One-Stop College Counseling, a private service that offers college counseling and support to high school students. “I really think it’s great for students to be exposed to all kinds of people.”

All of these factors have pushed the U.S. into the dawn of the regional recruiter, with people like Marsh becoming more common, especially in metropolitan areas. They are offering merit scholarships, selling flagship football and school spirit to woo out-of-staters. 

Marsh’s biggest challenge, she said, is convincing high school graduates to leave the state of South Carolina, which has its own prestigious universities that offer special treatment to keep South Carolina students home. Of the public universities in South Carolina, only Clemson’s in-state enrollment has been decreasing. The rest are enticing more residents to stay in the state

Students assemble on the campus of the University of South Carolina.

Students assemble on the campus of the University of South Carolina.

South Carolina Athletics

“Recruiting students from South Carolina is difficult, because there are a lot of great options within South Carolina, and scholarships that are funded by the state lottery,” said Marsh. 

Institutions that focus on in-state residents are in the minority. And even with their focus, they are still influenced by the nationwide trend. In-state recruiters have become more necessary, playing defense against universities like Alabama and Tennessee-Knoxville, who have expanded their reach all over the country.

Amanda Wolk, a Virginia-based regional recruiter for the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, said that flagship schools have entered into a sort of “arms race” to vie for out-of-state students. One reason is fewer in-state students. In Tennessee, it is free for residents to attend community college, an incentive that makes it difficult for four-year universities to recruit students in the state, Wolk said.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville has increased its staff of regional recruiters exponentially in the last two years, now employing 18 recruiters in states such as California, Texas and Florida as well as across New England. 

“There are so many schools, and so many people recruiting,” Wolk said. “The more exposure you have, the better off you’re going to be.”

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