Catholic University held an open house on Sunday where lots of prospective New Jersey students were in attendance. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Travelers know the Garden State for its congested turnpike and beachfront casinos. MTV fans know it for the reality show “Jersey Shore.” And colleges know New Jersey as the nation’s leading exporter of students.

The state is packed with applicants who have high SAT scores and well-off parents, but it has a relatively lean higher education system. More than half of New Jersey high school graduates who enroll at four-year colleges choose one that’s out of state.

Many of these students land in the Washington region. Several schools in Maryland and the District have more students from New Jersey than from Virginia. Public universities consider these students especially valuable because they pay higher out-of-state tuition. Private colleges like New Jersey, too, because their recruiters can garner many applications from a small area.

“A lot of them would go broke without our students,” said Paul R. Shelly, a spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities.

In fall 2008, 31,510 recent high school graduates left New Jersey to enroll as freshmen at four-year colleges, according to the latest federal data. Meanwhile, 4,167 students arrived in the state. New Jersey’s outflow of students is the largest of any state.

On the same measure, Virginia had a net gain of about 3,000 students in 2008, and the District had a net gain of about 6,300. Maryland had a net drain of about 8,600.

It’s not that New Jersey students don’t have options at home. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is a top-tier research institution that has become more selective in recent years. There are another nine public four-year colleges and even more private schools, including Princeton University.

But those schools don’t have the capacity for all of the state’s college-bound teenagers. And, as for many college-bound students across the country, there is also the allure of hitting the road for a few years.

At the University of Maryland, New Jersey’s 1,800 undergraduates form the largest out-of-state contingent. During spring and winter breaks, the university runs shuttle buses between College Park and two spots in New Jersey. At Towson University in Baltimore County, 80 percent of undergraduates come from Maryland and 7 percent from New Jersey.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, New Jersey is often the No. 1 feeder state for freshmen classes — so officials weren’t too surprised when a star from a Bravo reality show, “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” asked last summer for a tour for her child and a camera crew. (The university turned down the request.)

George Washington University, in the District, has a regional recruiting office in New Jersey. At freshman orientation in June, the GWU student body president asked how many students were from Jersey. He laughed when a sea of hands shot up. “Some things never change,” he said.

At Catholic University, also in the District, New Jersey was the second most popular state of origin for the latest freshmen class, just behind Maryland and way ahead of Virginia. The school dedicates three of its 10 admissions counselors to canvassing New Jersey every fall. One of them, Patrick Ratke, logged hundreds of miles on a rental car, visiting dozens of schools and staffing booths at college fairs.

One October morning, Ratke pitched Catholic to two dozen boys in blazers at a prep school in Richland, in southern New Jersey. Then he drove an hour north, passing a family of wild turkeys on his way to a co-ed Catholic school in Haddonfield, where he was one of more than 20 recruiters to visit that week. Then he went back south to an all-girls school. Then back to Haddonfield, near Philadelphia, for a college fair at a public high school ranked among the best in the state.

Through three admission seasons, Ratke has learned that New Jersey students don’t get too excited about Catholic’s Starbucks outlet — but they are guaranteed to laugh when he tells them about a campus convenience store that resembles a roadside institution from home.

“The way that I describe it is as a Wawa without two things: No Wawa iced tea and no made-to-order sandwiches,” Ratke told a group of girls at Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, where Wawa gas stations outnumber Starbucks. “Kind of a little piece of home there on campus.”

The Jersey affection for Wawa is so strong that a couple years ago, Catholic’s student government rented a bus during finals week to take students to the closest Wawa for late-night comfort food.

The horde of college recruiters who descend on Jersey every year underscore the extent of the state’s “brain drain.”

In 2010, Gov. Chris Christie (R) convened a task force to review the problem. It reported that two decades of state funding cuts have hurt higher education and recommended an immediate funding infusion to avoid serious economic problems. But the task force also acknowledged that fiscal troubles will hinder such investments.

Historically, New Jersey was slow to get into the higher education market. In the 1940s and ’50s, the state created a flagship university by purchasing Rutgers, which was chartered as a private university before the American Revolution. As the baby boomers hit college in the 1960s and ’70s, the state started community colleges and founded three colleges: Ramapo, Stockton and Thomas Edison.

Darryl G. Greer, executive director of the state college and university association, said these schools are being pushed to their limit. To reverse the exodus of students from New Jersey would require a huge investment, he said.

“You can’t turn this baby around in a few years with limited money,” Greer said. One of his staff members jokes that the easiest way to solve the problem would be to annex all schools along Interstate 95 and Amtrak’s northeast rail line.

On that day in late October, Ratke and recruiters from more than 100 schools showed up for a college fair at Haddonfield Memorial High School. The vast majority of the recruiters were from out of state.

Ratke laid out brochures for Catholic at a table sandwiched between displays for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Centenary College, a liberal arts school in Hackettstown, N.J.

Devon Vialva, a Centenary enrollment and financial aid counselor, said if the state wants to retain its high school graduates — and their money — it needs to heavily invest in growing sports programs and building up facilities such as dorms and student centers.

“What’s going to attract the students?” he said. “Students are shallow. They are going to go towards what’s shiny.”

Several students and their parents said they felt more wooed and wanted by out-of-state schools than those close by.

“New Jersey does not do anything to keep them here,” said Lo-Ann Riggs Davis, who led a Georgetown University information session. Davis grew up in the area, graduated from Georgetown in 1982 and returned to Jersey to raise her family. Her daughter and twin sons are now enrolled at Georgetown.

Davis’s pitch for “the Ivy League of the Catholic schools” to the classroom full of prospective students that night contained the same selling point touted by other recruiters: a campus in a state other than Jersey.

“You know that it’s in Washington, D.C., right?” she asked the group. ”Everything is going on there.”