More Students Migrate Away From Home

Public universities expand recruitment efforts in quest for out-of-state money

Alison Yin for The Chronicle

Travis Anderson, 17, stands outside his high school, in Atherton, Calif. He is interested in attending Arizona State U. next year, in part because he feels like his state's public campuses are too crowded.
October 30, 2011

A few weeks ago, 30 high-school students and their parents gathered here in a Hilton conference room to listen to an Arizona State University recruiter, who promoted his campus in terms his California audience could understand.

"At ASU, you can be outside all year round," said the recruiter, Brad Baertsch, as images of palm trees and desert mountains flashed behind him. Mr. Baertsch, a chipper Arizona State graduate in his early 30s, is one of the university's four full-time recruiters based in California.

While conceding that out-of-state tuition at Arizona State would be higher than in-state tuition at any California university, Mr. Baertsch said students would get all of the classes they needed to graduate in four years, a not-so-subtle dig at the perpetual shortage of course offerings at the state universities.

Leaving California wouldn't be such a big deal, Mr. Baertsch said. "About 1,000 freshmen this fall were from the state of California alone. That's cool," he said. "If you go to school in California, where's everybody from?"

The answer might surprise you. Last year, Arizona State enrolled more freshmen from California than six of California State University's campuses, the traditional workhorses of the state university system. So did the University of Oregon, where admissions officials joke that their campus could be called the "University of California at Eugene."

Public universities across the country are engaged in an all-out war for out-of-state students. Deep cuts in support are driving the search for revenue, and in many states, a stagnating pool of local applications has pushed colleges to recruit broadly. The winners, like Arizona State, bring in higher out-of-state tuition and get to skim from a larger pool of prospective students.

The Golden State, long fertile ground for college recruiters, is attracting them like never before. Some colleges have doubled or tripled the number of recruiters who visit California. Of the 60 members of a network for remote recruiters, the Regional Admission Counselors of California, about a third have joined in the last year.

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The currents of recruitment flow in two directions. The day before Arizona State's recruiter visited Santa Clara, Ken Gonsalves, who works in the University of California at Berkeley's admissions office, flew home and unpacked his suitcase. He had spent the previous 10 days trekking around Texas and Oklahoma with representatives from four of the nation's most selective private colleges. He shook hands with a couple hundred high-school students, and co-hosted breakfasts with dozens of high-school counselors, all in the name of outreach.

Although multicity meet-and-greets have long been standard for private colleges, they are new for Berkeley, where "recruitment travel" once meant jaunts to Southern California. Now it means trips that demand souvenirs, like the coffee mugs decorated with armadillos and yellow roses that Mr. Gonsalves bought in Fort Worth for his wife and children.

As the traditional borders on the enrollment map continue to erode, some observers have likened recruitment to an interstate game of swap. Randy Hodgins, the former chief lobbyist for the University of Washington, said he once told a joke to his counterpart at the University of California that has more than a grain of truth.

"The answer to both of our budget problems is, I take your kids and you take mine, and then they're both nonresidents," Mr. Hodgins said.

End of the Boom

The story of student migration is bigger than budget cuts and tuition dollars. It's also about a mind-set. Over the last half-century, the market for a college education has been transformed while the very concept of distance has changed. For many Americans, places that once seemed far away became reachable by car, on discount airlines, or online.

What's said of politics was long said of college recruitment—it's all local. Over time, however, the lower costs of travel and communication have reshaped enrollment patterns, as Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, described in a 2009 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Those changes, she found, turned what was once a localized industry into a national one, at least among highly selective colleges that court well-polished applicants.

The information age spawned a great "re-sorting" of college students, Ms. Hoxby wrote. Americans used to attend a local institution regardless of its characteristics and their abilities, but "now, their choices are driven far less by distance and far more by a college's resources and student body." This has been especially true for high-achieving students who choose among big-name colleges.

This re-sorting, coupled with a growing population of high-school graduates, led to an era in which colleges of all kinds planned as though ever-growing demand was destiny, expanding their classes and building like mad. Greg Perfetto, former associate provost for institutional research at Vanderbilt University, wrote in a report last year: "A former Chancellor of mine once commented that a university with less than three construction cranes visible on campus simply wasn't a player."

The boom has ended and the cranes have halted. Between now and 2018, the number of high-school graduates will decline, and some regions—especially the Northeast and parts of the Midwest—will see steep drops, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. During that time, white high-school graduates are projected to decline in every region. Within those numbers lies another story: Mr. Perfetto, now vice president for research and development at Admissions Lab, an Atlanta-based enrollment firm, joins many experts in predicting a nationwide drop in the number of affluent, well-prepared high-school graduates (of all racial and ethnic backgrounds) whose parents attended college. The kind of students who propelled expansion over the last 20 years will not disappear, Mr. Perfetto wrote, "but will not spur growth either."

That has major implications for today's out-of-state gold rush. Don Hossler, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, anticipates a supply-and-demand problem for some institutions. "There cannot possibly be enough students with the means and willingness to travel out of state for all the schools that want to tap this market," said Mr. Hossler, who's also a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.

"Institutions seeking to offset enrollment and/or revenue declines with out-of-state students are going to find it a tough road," Mr. Hossler said. "And to the extent that they are successful, they are likely to increasingly find that they have to get into a cycle of ever increasing the dollar value of their financial-aid awards to achieve their goals."

Indeed, selective public institutions that once used merit aid to keep students in their home states are now using it to woo more students from other states, too. That worries Patrick M. Callan, founder and president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "Nobody would say higher education should be provincial," he said, "but from a broad policy perspective, this is likely to contribute to the growing stratification of higher education."

Mr. Callan concedes that state universities have sustained severe budget cuts, but he fears that relying too much on out-of-state revenue will weaken the case for state support when (or if) the economy rebounds. Moreover, he wonders about the long-term implications of displacing in-state students, especially those from lower-income families, with out-of-state applicants at public institutions, like Berkeley, that operate in states loaded with qualified applicants. "This is a mission issue—it's really a matter of what a public institution is," he said.

These days, many state universities describe out-of-state recruitment as a meaningful embrace of geographic diversity, something private colleges have long celebrated in their freshman classes. Mr. Callan is skeptical: "Are we just trying to bring in more white, affluent students from the suburbs?"

New Recruitment Model

On the ground, the push for more out-of-state students reveals a complicated mix of institutional ambition, fiscal necessity, and long-term strategy. Such is the case at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, where nonresident students comprise 43 percent of the freshman class.

When R. Scott Verzyl took a job at the university in 2004, the enrollment blueprints were simple enough. Although the admissions office competed for some high-achieving applicants outside South Carolina, it lacked a comprehensive plan for expanding out-of-state enrollment.

"We were more or less order-takers—people expressed an interest, we provided information and serviced the applicants," said Mr. Verzyl, associate vice president for enrollment management and executive director of undergraduate admissions. "Now we're becoming more like private schools in the way we approach admissions. We're more in the mode of hustling for business and trying to find new markets."

Dollars and demographics have driven that change. Since 2007, the university has lost 50 percent of its state appropriation, which now accounts for just 10 percent of its overall support. The number of high-school graduates in the state is projected to remain flat or decline over the next decade.

Both trends complicate the university's long-term plan to build its undergraduate population and enhance the academic quality of its students. "We knew if we were going to do that," Mr. Verzyl said, "we would have to get those students from somewhere."

To that end, South Carolina has established a network of about a dozen regional admissions counselors, who live and work full-time in other states, including Georgia, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and in the Washington, D.C., area. That venture accounts for about 15 percent of the admissions office's annual budget of $4-million, according to Mr. Verzyl. "It's more than paying for itself," he said.

In California, as in other states, Mr. Verzyl sees signs of growth. About 200 Californians applied for spots in this fall's freshman class, double the number last year. The university offered places to 111, and 25 enrolled. "California's exporting students," he said, "and we're rolling out the welcome mat."

Last year Rachel Hartley, a South Carolina graduate, moved to Los Angeles to plant the flag for her alma mater. Crisscrossing the state in her Jeep Liberty, she has learned the joys of driving in the land of gridlock. "I probably sit in traffic more than I talk to students," she said.

Nonetheless, Ms. Hartley talks to more students than many campus-based counselors do. She works 10- to 12-hour days, often visiting three high schools and then appearing at college fairs in the evening. On a recent evening in October, she held six consecutive half-hour meetings with prospective students and their parents at a Panera restaurant in Solana Beach, near San Diego. "Every day I hear concerns from students about not being able to graduate in four years, about how their majors will be impacted," she said.

At South Carolina, Ms. Hartley tells them, they will graduate in four years, live in a walkable town, and experience hot, humid summers but little snow in the winter. She also talks to them about the university's merit scholarships. Every year, South Carolina gives 20 full scholarships to nonresident students, and offers other grants—typically from $2,000 to $4,000—to high-achieving applicants from other states. And the university offers some of those students further discounts, including in-state tuition rates.

Those strategies have helped the university raise its profile, Mr. Verzyl said. Over the last 10 years, the average SAT scores of incoming classes have climbed about 100 points, and grade-point averages have improved by half a letter grade.

As South Carolina has awarded more merit scholarships, it has also invested more heavily in need-based aid, bringing in 125 to 150 students each year under the Gamecock Guarantee program, which covers four years of tuition, plus some expenses, for low-income students from in-state families who qualify.

Although some South Carolina legislators have called for caps on out-of-state enrollment, university officials counter that the revenue nonresident students bring in helps the university fulfill its mission. As the proportion of out-of-state students has grown, so, too, has the number of in-state students (this year's freshman class included a record number). "It's out-of-state students who are subsidizing the in-state ones, but many people think it's the other way around," Mr. Verzyl said.

In Columbia, as in most college towns, administrators insist that geographic diversity isn't just about money. Diverse classes, the thinking goes, keep campuses from becoming cultural vacuums. "We don't want our in-state students to have an insular experience," said Nancy G. McDuff, associate vice president for admissions and enrollment management at the University of Georgia, which recruits in California, Texas, and several college towns. "We want our students to learn how to communicate with people who haven't eaten grits for breakfast."

Unlike some neighboring states, Georgia has a fast-growing population of high-school graduates, who are diverse by any measure. That is good for Ms. McDuff's institution, where 85 percent of students come from within the state. But it also means more competition: The Peach State has become a major frontier for out-of-state recruiters.

Recently, Louisiana State University purchased space on a digital billboard not far from Georgia's campus, in Athens, that notes the university's scholarship deadline and admissions Web site. The billboard is one of about two dozen scattered throughout the Southeast.

"We just don't have the volume of students in Louisiana, and it's no longer a given that if you're from Louisiana, you'll go to LSU," said Mandy Hoffman, associate director of undergraduate admissions and student aid at Louisiana State. "There's constant competition to stay at the level of our peers. We want bigger and we want better."

The California Connection

Back in Silicon Valley, Christian Esdrelon watched the presentation about Arizona State University closely. Arizona State has been in the back of his mind ever since he learned that one of his favorite basketball players, James Harden, played for the Sun Devils before joining the NBA. Last year, despite having never visited the campus, he bought a yellow Arizona State T-shirt in the Phoenix airport because he had matching sneakers.

Tuition and academics aren't usually the first things high-school seniors mention when they discuss potential reasons for going to a distant public college. They talk about meeting different types of people, or sports, or getting a good distance away from their parents.

Mr. Esdrelon, a senior at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, liked the photos of Arizona State's dorms and a video that showed professors sitting and talking with students. Arizona State has a competitive athletics program, he says, but it doesn't seem like a typical university.

"My sister went to UCLA, and she didn't meet a professor one-on-one ever," Mr. Esdrelon said. "I want to be able to meet my professor, have them be able to help me if I'm struggling."

Arizona State is one of the largest public colleges in the United States, with more than 70,000 students. Its student-to-faculty ratio is considerably worse than UCLA's. Its success at branding itself as a more personal college experience reflects the quality of its pitch and the power of its four campuses, which are each positioned to attract different kinds of students.

After the presentation, Mr. Baertsch, Arizona State's recruiter, asked Mr. Esdrelon what kind of college experience he wanted. "I want to be able to interact with more people, but keep it more chill," Mr. Esdrelon said, ambiguously. The recruiter suggested the main campus, in Tempe.

The receptiveness to Arizona State's message among Californians also reflects their disenchantment with their own university system. Universities here, like those in many states, have sharply raised tuition for in-state students while cutting costs. Most high-school students have a story about a sibling or a friend who felt ignored at the back of a lecture hall.

Travis Anderson, a soft-spoken high-school senior from Redwood City, who attended the Arizona State presentation with his parents, said he liked hearing that the largest lecture hall at the university holds only 400 students. He has friends at the University of California who feel lost.

"They go in undecided, and then they have all these classes that are prereqs of prereqs," he said. "There's these just huge classes, huge classes. They don't really get an awesome education, I guess."

In 2009, the same budget cuts that have turned off Californians prompted admissions staff members at the University of California's flagship campus, in Berkeley, to hop on airplanes and travel for the first time to recruitment hot spots like Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. This fall, nine members of the university's admissions staff traveled outside California.

Building relationships with college counselors is a crucial part of Berkeley's national outreach. "Even if we don't catch a student on a particular night, we're helping counselors understand that there's more of a chance for a student to gain an admission offer than there was a few years ago," said Anne M. De Luca, acting associate vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions at Berkeley. "It used to be, 'Save Berkeley for your graduate-school list.' And now we're saying, 'Yes, Berkeley can be in the mix in a genuine way.' "

This fall, more than 1,000 students from outside California put down a deposit to enroll at Berkeley, up from just 223 two years ago. At the same time, the number of Californians expected to enroll has fallen 20 percent, to about 4,000.

Ms. De Luca describes the current enrollment picture as a balancing act. "We're a national university, so it makes sense for students from Chicago or Florida to compete for an admissions offer," she said. "We want very much to support our California students—it's who we've been since the 1800s. But it's challenging because we have a limited number of seats that the state supports."

Even as Berkeley and other universities become coast-to-coast competitors, they are, for better or worse, propping each other up.