Flagships' recruiting practices are 'narrowing' public access to higher ed, expert says

Carey: As flagships seek to increase rankings and revenue, some local students get left behind

Public flagship universities and colleges are limiting their levels of in-state students in a broader effort to become more like their private, elite peers, argues Kevin Carey, director of New America's education policy program, in the New York Times' "The Upshot."

Public higher education, "one of the most important paths to upward mobility, open meritocratic basis to people from all economic classes, is narrowing," Carey writes.

In the year 2000, national or flagship public universities enrolled 80% of their students from within their own state. Regional public universities enrolled about the same—86%.

But by 2012, the two groups diverged. As institutions expanded to accommodate a surge in high school graduates, 90% of regional schools' new students were in-state residents. That was not the case at national universities.

Instead, they recruited from other states and countries, charging higher tuition and fees while offering less in discounts. As a result, "the number of in-state spots relative to the college-going population declined significantly," says Carey.

From 2000 to 2012, the number of enrolled in-state freshmen dropped by:

  • 384 at the University of California (UC) Berkeley;
  • About 500 at Purdue University;
  • About 300 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign;
  • About 200 at Auburn University and Michigan State University.

Meanwhile at UC Berkeley, the number of international students grew eightfold and the out-of-state U.S. students jumped by approximately 300.  The trend appeared at the other institutions as well.

A recent study from New America found two primary drivers for this change: schools' need to subsidize decreasing public funding with the higher out-of-state tuition revenue, and the drive to improve their standings in national rankings by recruiting top students.

"The slow death of in-state tuition is a case where declining public investment and selfish institutional interests tend to coincide," writes Carey. "Budget cuts give them an excuse to become what they wanted to be all along," he says.

Merit aid at public colleges does hurt in-state students, report concludes

The University of Alabama's freshman class, for example, is now made up of a majority of out-of-state students. The institution employs 30 full-time admissions officers who recruit around the nation, offering "millions of dollars in scholarships." Recently, they successfully recruited a Tennessee high school senior who turned down all eight Ivy League schools to join their honors program—complete with a full scholarship—in the fall.

Frequently, universities take this route because they have more control over resident ratio than they do over tuition—which is often regulated by governing bodies and state legislatures.

As other industry experts have also argued, Carey encourages lawmakers to stem the movement by creating ratio caps (Carey, "The Upshot," New York Times, 5/18).

The takeaway: Public flagship universities recruitment of top out-of-state students limits access for in-state individuals, argues Kevin Carey in the New York Times' "The Upshot."

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