Outsiders Welcome

Are some college admissions rigged for non-residents? One large public university system stands accused of hurting local students by attracting more out-of-state ones.

Students walk toward the dorms at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

It’s been six years since one of the worst recessions in American history officially ended and all but two states are still spending less per student on higher education than they did before the markets tanked almost a decade ago. How much states allocate to finance public colleges and universities has real-life implications for students, who, many researchers say, end up spending more of their money or borrow larger amounts to bankroll a bachelor’s degree as states contribute less.

But it’s not just students feeling the pinch; colleges themselves are in an ever-increasing battle to attract relatively wealthy students who can afford to pay more of those higher tuition rates than lower-income students who might need grants from the university in order to attend. Students from out-of-state are especially coveted, because state universities typically charge higher tuition rates to students who went to high schools in a different state. The quest for students who can pay more has dramatically altered the student composition at some flagship public universities. At the University of California system, for example, roughly 15,000 of the 90,000 incoming freshmen in 2015 were out-of-state students, and another 15,000 were considered international. In the past decade, state resident enrollment grew by 10 percent while enrollment of students from outside the state surged by 432 percent.

This week a sharply worded audit of the University California system criticized it for its dependence on out-of-state students, and stated these students faced lower admissions standards while many in-state students were denied admission to their preferred campus. The Los Angeles Times quoted UC President Janet Napolitano as saying the report didn’t fairly take into account the recession-era cuts to the UC budget. Though there actually has been some research about the preferences non-resident students have for public universities, far less is known about the effects enrolling more of these students can have on college demographics, for example whether fewer lower-income, black and Latino students from within the state are enrolled when states pursue more students from outside the state.

That information void is a sore spot for Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona who is emerging as a research leader on higher education enrollment policy. So far, Jaquette and a co-writer have published a journal article showing that a 10-percent drop in state appropriations is associated with a public research university increasing by five percent the number of non-resident freshmen it enrolls. He and his colleagues also found that at public research universities, spikes in the number of non-resident students who are admitted are associated with declines in the number of under-represented minorities and students who receive Pell grants (which are mostly issued to low-income students).

Jaquette talked with me about what effects non-resident students have on the racial and economic diversity of state universities. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

What effect does recruiting non-resident students have on in-state students, Pell recipients, and students who are traditionally under-represented?

I think I can say with some confidence that when state appropriations go down, public research universities go after more out-of-state students. The relationship between non-resident and low-income or under-represented minorities, there are two questions. One is: If you go for more non-resident students, what is the relationship between that and the composition of the student body? And composition isn’t about numbers, it’s about percentages. And that’s about feelings of isolation.

We’re trying to answer the more causal question right now, which is: if the number of non-resident students increases, what happens to the number of resident students? That’s what state policymakers care about, and we don’t have the answer to that question. We also don’t know the answer to the question of, when the number of non-resident students increases, what happens to the number of low-income and under-represented minorities? Part of it is a limitation of data. Through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), I can get the number of Pell recipients, but I do not know the number of Pell recipients who are in-state or out-of-state. I know the number of freshmen African American or Latino students, but I don’t know the number who are in-state versus out-of-state. So the crowd-out question, with respect to whether the growing non-resident population decreases the number of black or Pell recipients, is harder to address because we just don’t have the variables we’d need. We just don’t know much right now. But it’s the work we’re trying to focus on right now.

What’s the importance of finding this stuff out?

I would say because policymakers care about access issues and they realize that public universities need money, so they get that, “Hey, we’ve cut their funding a lot and they need to make up some money.” For example, in California the legislators were like, “We don’t like these non-resident students going to UCs but if that is the case, if you’re using that money to increase access to resident students and for resident low-income or under-represented minority students, then that’s an evil we’re willing to work with. But if you’re using this money to build fancier dorms or go after more non-resident students, then we’re not into it.” That’s why the answer to that empirical question has policy consequences.

What are universities doing with the increase of out-of-state student tuition money?

One of my graduate students, her dissertation is focusing on this right now. And [it] uses student-level data from a survey called the National Postsecondary Aid Study that allows us to know the amount of institutional aid that students get, so she’s trying to see whether it’s the case that when schools receive more tuition revenue from non-resident students, does that result in higher institutional aid for low-income students? We don’t know the answer to that yet. I think we’re at the stage where we really don’t know as much as we should. What’s surprising to me is that there’s a literature going back to like the 70s on out-of-state students, and especially in the 90s there was a lot of literature focusing on what do non-resident students demand, what kind of institutions do they like. They just didn’t focus on universities viewing non-resident students as a cash cow.

What do non-resident students want?

I would say what the literature finds it’s fuzzy on how much quality matters to them, and that’s heavy quotation marks. They want big-name institutions that 18-year-olds from upper middle-class suburbs would have heard of. And I think that is a more realistic appraisal of what these non-resident students are thinking about.

What should reporters and researchers be looking at?

It would be important to know where are the places universities are actually recruiting. They don’t release these data. The high school guidance counselor often tweets out the colleges that will be [at the college fair]. And then at the college level many universities now have regional recruiters who will tweet out where they’re going to be. I don’t see any other way to find out where they’re actually recruiting. If we don’t, we’re relying on what they say, “Oh, of course we care about access, we have this program.” [Jaquette is working on a project that relies on the methodology he just described.]

[Also] the role private companies play in guiding college enrollment managers, companies like Hobsons and Ruffalo Noel Levitz. These large for-profit businesses that have very complicated analytic software give universities lists of potential prospects and recommend where to recruit. We’re completely ignoring this other for-profit entity that really touches public higher education. They never really tell colleges whom they should recruit. Instead they’ll say if you want to increase this variable, go here, if you want to increase revenue, recruit here.

This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.