TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — America’s most prominent public universities were founded to serve the people of their states, but they are enrolling record numbers of students from elsewhere to maximize tuition revenue as state support for higher education withers.
The shift has buttressed the finances and reshaped the profile of schools across the country, from the University of California’s famed campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles to the universities of Arkansas, Oregon, Missouri, South Carolina and numerous other places. Forty-three of the 50 schools known as “state flagships” enrolled a smaller share of freshmen from within their states in 2014 than they had a decade earlier, federal data show. At 10 flagships, state residents formed less than half the freshman class.
Nowhere is the trend more pronounced than here at the University of Alabama, where students who cheered this month when the Crimson Tide won its fourth national football championship in seven years were mostly from other states.
In 2004, 72 percent of new freshmen here were Alabamians. By 2014, the share was 36 percent. That was the largest swing in the country among 100 flagship and other significant state universities The Washington Post analyzed using federal data on student residency.
The percentage of in-state freshmen fell at more than 70 of those schools during that decade.
There were declines of 20 or more percentage points at UC-Berkeley and UCLA, Idaho State University and the flagships of South Carolina, Missouri, Oregon and Arkansas. There also were drops of more than 15 percentage points at Michigan State, Ohio State, and the universities of Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Washington.
The overhaul of the student body at big-name schools reverberates in statehouses and among consumers.
“People inside states believe that they have greater access to their state universities,” said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University research professor who studies education finance. Many are now asking, she said, “who does that public university belong to anymore? And what is it doing? Is it seeking ‘elite’ status? That’s great, but not if your own kids can’t go there.”
Kendall Roden, 21, of Garland, Tex., said she was lured to Tuscaloosa even though she had been admitted to the University of Texas. Alabama offered her a sizable scholarship, and she said she has thrived as a management information systems major.
Plus she got to see coach Nick Saban’s team win national titles in her freshman and senior years. Being a football fan, she said, is “a huge part of my life and Alabama’s culture. It’s the lifeblood of the university.”
On one level, the shift is all about money. Tuition and fees for out-of-state students at four-year public universities average $23,893, according to the College Board. In-state students are charged an average of $9,410. The out-of-state premium, 150 percent, is lucrative for schools that draw thousands of nonresidents.
“They pay full freight,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “They bring in huge amounts of additional revenue.” That funding is key to maintaining academic excellence, he said.
In 2004, 94 percent of UCLA’s freshmen were Californians. Ten years later, the share was 73 percent. The number of Californians entering as freshmen at Westwood remained relatively stable — averaging about 4,100 from 2008 to 2014 — but the number of nonresidents surged after the economic recession in 2007 to 2009.
There was an out-of-state spike at Berkeley, too, creating political problems. Three of every 10 freshmen at the California flagship in 2014 came from out of state, up from 1 in 10 a decade earlier. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) — a Berkeley alumnus — wondered last year whether “normal” residents from the nation’s most-populous state were getting a fair shot at admission to their top university. University of California President Janet Napolitano, who oversees the system, pledged afterward to limit out-of-state enrollment last year in Berkeley and Los Angeles. All of UC’s undergraduate campuses are planning to raise their in-state totals significantly in the next school year.
Block said non-Californians provide a big non-financial benefit: a cosmopolitan atmosphere on a campus with global reach. Several hundred in each class at UCLA and Berkeley are foreigners.
“There’s no substitute for international students,” Block said. “They bring perspective you just can’t get from the domestic population. It really does add to the environment for everybody.”
Numerous studies have shown the historic decline of state support for higher education, although several states raised appropriations modestly in recent years. The Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research found this month that state and local funding per student at public research universities was 28 percent lower in 2013 than in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.
The fiscal vise forced universities to trim costs and raise revenue, largely through tuition increases or additional students. Out-of-state expansion proved especially crucial for schools in states with stagnant numbers of high school graduates.
“The primary driver for us was the demographic reality,” said Roger Thompson, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Oregon. At that flagship, the in-state share of new freshmen fell from 68 percent in 2004 to 47 percent in 2014.
Experts say there is no sign the trend will reverse.
“The reliance on nonresident tuition income is probably going to continue,” said George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “Even in the states that have seen increases in state support in the last few years — have they reduced their nonresident enrollment? Well, no.”
Some flagships bucked the trend. At the University of Maryland in College Park, the in-state share of the freshman class rose from 67 percent in 2004 to 72 percent in 2014. There were similar single-digit increases at the universities of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
At the University of Virginia, which sets aside about two-thirds of freshman seats for state residents, the geographic balance barely changed. Greg W. Roberts, dean of admission at U-Va., said out-of-state demand is so high that nonresident applicants are admitted at a far lower rate (24 percent) than Virginians (44 percent).
Shannon Gundy, undergraduate admissions director at U-Md., said recruiting top out-of-state students is difficult. It often requires “spending” money — through discounts and scholarships — to land students who are shopping for the best deal.
“A lot of schools have financial resources that allow them to entice out-of-state students to come, and that’s not something that we’ve done,” Gundy said. “We do offer scholarships for in-state and out-of-state students, but it’s not our intention to go out and grab out-of-state students for the sake of having them. We want to make sure we are remaining true to our mission.”
Texas A&M University, one of the nation’s largest, gave 95 percent of its freshman seats to Texans in 2014, the highest in-state share among schools The Post analyzed. The flagship University of Texas at Austin was not far behind, at 89 percent. Those figures reflect the state’s surging population and the guarantee of admission to the best students from every public high school.
“We serve the state,” said Michael K. Young, Texas A&M’s president. “Our demand curve is extremely high for in-state kids. They are really good, and there are a lot of them.” But Young said he would like to increase out-of-state enrollment a bit, to “enliven perspectives” at College Station through geographic diversity.
University of Alabama officials say they, too, serve their state. But they have done it in large part by recruiting outsiders. Demographics and state finances left them little choice, they said. Alabama’s population has grown at a lower rate than the nation’s, and its output of high school graduates has been up and down. Volatility in state funding for higher education led the flagship in 2003 to launch a major out-of-state growth plan, hunting for students in Texas, Georgia, Florida and beyond. Undergrad enrollment shot up more than 90 percent in ensuing years, topping 30,000 in 2014.
“When students vote with their feet to be at your institution, that’s a really great outcome,” said the university’s president, Stuart R. Bell. Geographic diversity benefits students, he said. “Our graduates need to be able to thrive in a very dynamic and flexible world.”
Bell said the flagship, founded in 1831, is not overlooking Alabamians. “We’re serving every student who could come to the university and be successful here,” he said.
The transformation in Tuscaloosa is hard to overstate, faculty and administrators say. The manicured greens of the central quad, the Denny Chimes bell tower of brick and limestone, and the core academic halls with columned facades remain as they were in generations past. But a building spree — said to entail an opening or renovation every 90 days — has enlarged and modernized a campus packed with more students than ever. Faculty, weary of budget cuts before the boom, received substantial raises after it.
Many students from out of state cite three factors that drew their attention: a winning football tradition, an honors college and merit scholarships. Coach Saban earns $7 million a year, but the value of the marketing boost his team provides the school is immense.
The honors college, launched in 2003, has about 6,000 students. They qualify through high grades and test scores (minimum score of 28 on the ACT or 1250 on SAT reading and math), and they get benefits including seminars capped at 15 students per professor, as well as service and research opportunities.
Scholarships often clinch the deal. Alabama spends about $80 million a year on scholarships and grants for students without financial need (not counting athletic scholarships), twice as much as it does on need-based aid, according to data provided to analysts. Discounts to the out-of-state price — which total about $35,000 for tuition, fees, room and board — help the school land high-achievers normally wooed by more prestigious schools that can cost up to $60,000 a year.
“Really, it was about money and scholarships,” said Henry Poole, 19, a junior math major from San Diego. “I basically decided I didn’t want to spent $200,000, $300,000 or however much money. I decided I could make this work. There’s a lot of cool opportunities here.”
Amanda Bennett, 21, a senior in English and African American studies from Atlanta, said she turned down schools from the Ivy League and elsewhere to come here because Alabama offered the most competitive academic scholarship. “I couldn’t have asked for a better deal,” she said.
The influx from out of state is helping to reshape the image of a school famous as a scene of civil rights battles. In 1963, Gov. George C. Wallace, an ardent segregationist, made his “stand in the schoolhouse door” at Foster Auditorium to protest the admission of African Americans Vivian Malone and James Hood. In the past decade, the school has grown somewhat more racially diverse: In 2004, 83 percent of undergrads were white; in 2014, the share was 77 percent.
Last year, students elected the school’s first African American student government president since the 1970s. Elliot Spillers, 21, a senior in business management from Pelham, Ala., said support from nonresidents helped propel his victory.
“Students here from Chicago, Texas, California — they’re changing the culture of this university,” he said. “They have been able to put pressure on this campus and make a difference — and change it for the better.”