But at some of the most prestigious state universities, the gatekeepers are clear: It’s much tougher to get in if you live out of state. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a case in point.
Founded in 1793, UNC is a perennial draw for students from around the country — and the world — and it routinely ranks among the top five public universities analyzed by U.S. News & World Report.
The university had 31,953 students apply to enter as freshmen last year. Thirty percent were admitted. But that figure is somewhat deceiving because it combines in-state and out-of-state applicants. The admission rate for North Carolinians was 52 percent. For nonresidents, it was 19 percent.
North Carolina mandates that slightly more than 80 percent of entering freshmen come from the state. That has held constant in recent years.
“We’re really here for the people of North Carolina,” said Stephen M. Farmer, UNC’s vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. “We’re public not only in governance. We’re public not only in funding. We’re public in our ethos. We’re public in our commitment to the people who put us here.”
A Washington Post analysis found in the past decade many prominent public universities turned increasingly to out-of-state enrollment. Often this shift arose from a need to grow tuition revenue. Out-of-state students typically pay more than state residents.
Farmer said public universities must develop a strategy for the in-state/out-of-state balance. He used a music metaphor to describe it at UNC: “Nonresident students here, they’re the harmony to the melody of the resident students.”
What about other public universities? Here are 2015 admission rates from several:
- University of California at Berkeley: The in-state admission rate is 19 percent and the out-of-state rate is 14 percent.
- UCLA: The in-state rate is 16 percent and the out-of-state rate is 19 percent.
- University of Virginia: The in-state rate is 44 percent percent and the out-of-state rate is 24 percent.
- University of Wisconsin at Madison: The in-state rate is 67 percent and the out-of-state rate is 43 percent.
- University of Maryland: The in-state rate is 46 percent and the out-of-state rate is 43 percent.
- University of Alabama: The in-state rate is 59 percent and the out-of-state rate is 53 percent.
All of the above figures, from university institutional research data and school officials, combine domestic and international out-of-state students. The Wisconsin-Madison data only counts students from Wisconsin as in-state applicants, even though the university has a special discount tuition arrangement with Minnesota residents.
Admission rates rise and fall based on the volume of applications. “We have huge out-of-state demand,” said Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca M. Blank. She said the university’s first priority is in-state students, even though the in-state share of entering classes fell slightly from 2004 to 2014, from 65 percent to 60 percent. A key factor is that Wisconsin’s annual production of high school graduates has stagnated in recent years. That affects the applicant pool.
“The demographics here do matter,” Blank said. “We are one of the engines that actually brings really high talent into the state.” She said a good number of the out-of-state students stay.
Admission rates don’t tell the whole story. It’s also important to look at the credentials of the applicant pool. Are the average grades and test scores of admitted students higher if they come from out of state? That kind of information can be hard to track down. At Alabama, which has had a major surge in out-of-state enrollment in the past decade, data from school officials suggests there is not much variation related to state residency in the test scores of admitted students on the ACT and SAT.
At U-Va., the average SAT score (reading and math) last year for admitted students from out of state was 1432, according to dean of admission Greg W. Roberts. The average score for admitted Virginians was 1355. At U-Va., about 2 out of every 3 entering freshmen is from Virginia.
“We are 100 percent committed to Virginians,” Roberts said. “They’re the backbone of this university. We’re a flagship state university. We’re very proud of that.”