Inside a Flagship's Shift Beyond In-State Admissions

State audit releases the details on who gets in at Penn State.

June 26, 2017
Students at Penn State

Few issues are as sensitive in flagship university admissions as the proportion of slots going to those from out of state. Since the national economic downturn, many public universities have turned to out-of-staters -- international and otherwise -- who pay twice or more the tuition residents pay. While higher education leaders talk about the educational value of having more student geographic diversity, they are also frank about the need for more tuition dollars. And state leaders, while not necessarily increasing appropriations, complain when they perceive too many slots going to out-of-staters.

In such debates, reports that it is easier for out-of-staters than state residents to get in to a flagship can be particularly explosive. The University of California system faced such criticism from a state audit last year. And while the university fired back, it has also since agreed to first-ever limits on out-of-state enrollments.

The university's campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles are among the most competitive in admissions nationally -- even including elite private institutions.

A state audit released last week in Pennsylvania shows that these issues can be difficult even at flagships that are far less competitive than Berkeley. The state auditor blasted Pennsylvania State University, and especially its flagship University Park campus, for a dramatic increase in the number of non-resident American and international students admitted in recent years.

And the audit, citing admission rates, said that it appeared Penn State was favoring non-residents. Penn State denied this. But the data show a substantial increase in the share of international students at University Park, tripling in 25 years.

Here are some of the numbers cited in the audit report:

Penn State University Park Enrollment

Year Resident Non-Resident (U.S.) International
1990 76.5% 18.8% 4.7%
1995 75.2% 19.7% 5.1%
2000 72.4% 20.9% 6.7%
2005 68.3% 24.1% 7.6%
2010 63.9% 26.2% 9.9%
2015 56.2% 28.8% 15.0%

The audit noted that Penn State's regional campuses -- spread throughout the state and not as competitive in admissions as the flagship -- have also seen their student populations shift.

In 1990, enrollments on those campuses were almost 95 percent from in the state. That dropped to 84 percent by 2015. International enrollments -- 0.2 percent in 1990 -- were 5.1 percent in 2015.

But what really seemed to anger the auditors the most was a comparison of admission rates at the flagship campus, showing that in the 15 years up to 2015, it gradually became more likely -- and consistently so -- for non-resident Americans to be admitted than for Pennsylvania residents to be admitted.

Admit Rates at Penn State Flagship Campus

Year Non-Resident (U.S.) Rate Resident Rate International Rate
2000 45.6% 50.8% 46.7%
2001 58.0% 56.8% 56.9%
2002 56.2% 57.9% 53.8%
2003 56.0% 54.8% 49.7%
2004 60.5% 57.2% 51.9%
2005 60.0% 64.0% 57.6%
2006 56.9% 59.8% 54.6%
2007 50.0% 49.5% 53.9%
2008 50.0% 53.3% 48.9%
2009 54.9% 48.4% 46.7%
2010 58.3% 52.8% 44.5%
2011 59.1% 51.1% 35.1%
2012 61.0% 57.0% 31.6%
2013 64.3% 62.1% 29.4%
2014 59.7% 55.0% 25.3%
2015 60.4% 53.0% 28.8%

The audit explains the declining admit rate for international applicants by noting the increase in applications. In 2000, the audit noted, Penn State received 972 applications from outside the United States. By 2016, that number was 11,255.

But the audit was critical of the changes in admit rates for Pennsylvanians vs. non-Pennsylvania Americans. "In 11 out of 16 recent years, Penn State's data indicated non-residents were accepted to PSU's main campus at higher rates than at the Pennsylvania residents," the report said.

Admissions officers are quick to note, when given differing admit rates for different groups, that those rates may reflect vastly differing qualifications or characteristics of that group, and the audit acknowledges this. But it still says the situation is of concern.

"There are many factors that determine acceptance at PSU such as high school performance, class rank, standardized test scores (i.e., SAT or ACT), personal (essay) statement, and activities list," the audit says. "We acknowledge that viewing the acceptance rates alone without getting a full picture of the actual students accepted may not tell the entire story. We are merely pointing to the trend as a whole, and the fact that it presents a troubling situation for Pennsylvania residents."

Further, the audit acknowledges that Penn State needs money. But the report says that the push to out-of-state students means a focus on those with wealth, while many low-income and minority students in Pennsylvania may have difficulty being admitted.

"While using nonresidents to subsidize the resident tuition may be viewed as a smart business decision, it is not without a cost -- under-representation of low-income and historically under-represented racial/ethnic minority students," the audit says. "PSU must remain committed to its primary mission as a public, land-grant university for Pennsylvania residents.

In the university's response (at the end of the audit report at the link above), Penn State says that it remains absolutely committed to serving the residents of the state. Penn State also says that it has "never intentionally" favored non-Pennsylvanians over those from the state. But the response notes that the university controls who is admitted, but not who applies, and thus may not be able to control fluctuations in admission rates. 

Also, the report notes that the shifts noted in the audit took place in a period of significant growth in population of other states, amid "serious demographic challenges" in Pennsylvania.

And the university response notes that another issue raised in the audit was tuition rates -- and argues that out-of-state students help minimize tuition rates for Pennsylvanians.

"Just as the university has been careful not to base admission strategy on budgetary or revenue considerations to the detriment of Pennsylvanians, as some of our peers in other states have done," the university response says. "we must be cognizant of the fact that doing so in the opposite direction (i.e. strategically shifting the balance away from out-of-state students from our current state) and in the absence of increases in other revenue sources will ultimately result in higher tuition for Pennsylvania resident students because of the subsidy that out of state tuition provides."

Tuition and fees for Pennsylvania residents at University Park this academic year are $17,900. Those from outside the state pay $32,382.



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