State colleges accepting more nonresidents to keep up revenue

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

Raechel Hanson toiled through high school to build an academic transcript strong enough for admission to the College of William and Mary, the storied "public Ivy" in Williamsburg. She maintained a 3.9 grade-point average, played flute in the band, presided over the Spanish club and amassed more than 100 hours of community service.

It wasn't enough. She wound up 20 miles away at a less-selective state school, Christopher Newport University.

This was a particularly tough year for Virginians seeking entry to William and Mary and several other prestigious public universities because of machinations in the admissions cycle that favored applicants from outside the state.

"I spent most of my life working toward getting in at William and Mary," said Hanson, 19, of Winchester. "I thought I was of the caliber of students who would get in."

Many of the nation's top public universities accepted nonresident students in greater numbers this year, hoping to increase -- or at least sustain -- a pool of incoming freshmen who pay two or three times the tuition charged to locals. At some schools, the push for nonresidents has made it harder for residents to get in.

Public universities with the cachet to attract out-of-state students have courted them for decades. But universities are looking harder at nonresident students and their tuition dollars during the recession as other revenue sources dwindle. State funding has eroded by 10 percent in Maryland and by 20 percent or more in Virginia since the start of the downturn, accelerating a long-term nationwide decline in government support for higher education. Out-of-state students generally pay the full cost of their education, effectively subsidizing their in-state classmates.

Schools need the money

Since pre-recession 2007, the share of nonresident students in the freshman class has grown considerably at several flagship universities: from 34 to 37 percent at William and Mary; from 19 to 25 percent at the University of Washington; from 43 to 49 percent at the University of Iowa; and from 35 to 44 percent at Penn State.

"It's a matter of fiscal realities," said Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington. "Public universities survive on a combination of tuition revenue and state financial support. If one goes down, the other has to go up if you want to maintain your capacity."

A broader group of colleges, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland and flagship schools in Michigan, North Carolina and Minnesota, offered admission to more nonresident students this year than last year simply to shore up their numbers. The downturn made it harder for out-of-state students to pay the nonresident surcharge, so schools had to admit more nonresidents than they planned to enroll.

William and Mary accepted more non-Virginians than Virginians this spring for the first time in recent years. The college has become progressively more selective for state residents: A Virginia high school senior who applied to William and Mary four years ago had a 47 percent chance of getting in. This year's admit rate was 39 percent. For non-Virginians, in the same span, the admission rate has risen from 22 to 30 percent.

U-Va. accepted more out-of-state students this year than last year and slightly fewer Virginians. The admission rate for Virginians has fallen from 49 percent in 2005 to 45 percent this year. But school officials note that the admit rate has declined for nonresidents, too.

U-Md. accepted a larger number and share of nonresident applicants in 2009 than in any of the four previous years, hoping to preserve a roughly 2 to 1 ratio in the freshman class. Maryland has recruited heavily in other states and relies on nonresident dollars more than ever. In-state tuition has been frozen for four consecutive years, but out-of-state tuition continues to rise. Tuition and fees total $8,053 for residents, $23,990 for nonresidents.

Shift called temporary

Local university officials say any fluctuation in the admissions mix is purely temporary. A state cap forbids Virginia universities from raising their share of nonresident students above historic levels; at U-Va. and William and Mary, residents outnumber nonresidents roughly 2 to 1. Maryland caps nonresidents at 30 percent of the student population, a level approached only by U-Md.

"We certainly understand our role as a state institution," said Brian Whitson, spokesman for William and Mary.

Schools are pushing those limits, officials say, because they cannot afford to lose nonresident tuition dollars. At William and Mary, two-thirds of tuition revenue, $58 million, comes from nonresidents who pay $30,964 in tuition and fees, compared with $10,800 for residents.

The competition between in-state and out-of-state students has hardened into a political cause in some states as the growing applicant pool makes it tougher for everyone to get in. Parents wistfully recall an era when seemingly anyone with good grades and high SAT scores could gain entry to top state schools.

"It's just not good enough anymore to have really good grades, really good SATs, really good sports, really good kid," said Denise Miller. Her son Billy was rejected by U-Va. despite a transcript that included high grades, Advanced Placement credits, Chinese, diving and squash. He's at his second choice, Virginia Tech.

In Virginia's recent gubernatorial contest, both candidates proposed plans to make more room for Virginians in state schools. Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R) campaigned on a plan to reduce the share of out-of-state students not by limiting their numbers but by increasing overall seats in state universities by 119,000 over the next 15 years.

"They're literally kicking kids across the borders to other states," said state Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax). He is the latest of several state lawmakers to push for tougher limits on out-of-state students.

Despite the political cost, several flagship universities are looking to attract more out-of-state students in coming years.

Robert Holub, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has proposed raising enrollment from the current 20,000 to 22,500 over 10 years solely by adding nonresident students. University of Colorado President Bruce Benson wants to exclude international students from his state's cap on non-Coloradans. Emmert at the University of Washington and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at the University of California at Berkeley both say financial pressures will probably compel them to admit more nonresidents in coming years.

College presidents say a growing nonresident population enriches a campus, bringing not just dollars but also cultural and geographical diversity, and tends to raise the academic caliber of the freshman class. This, in turn, elevates a school's stature and national rank.

"You're talking about having a more diverse campus, which is going to help the students who are here," Holub said, "and at the same time you are going to increase the revenues of the campus."

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