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The scandal in college admissions has focused attention not just on alleged illegal activities involving bribery and fraud, but also on the many legal advantages enjoyed by applicants who are more wealthy and more likely to be white than are those in the population at large.

A report being issued today suggests that leading public universities contribute in a significant way to these advantages with their recruitment of out-of-state students -- and, to some extent, with their lack of recruitment of in-state students as well. The report focuses on the high schools at which public universities recruit outside their state. The study finds that these high schools are more likely than not to be high income and largely white. Further, a disproportionate number of the high schools visited are private schools.

"Despite a historical mission of social mobility for meritorious state residents, public research universities increasingly enroll an affluent student body that is unrepresentative of the socioeconomic and racial diversity of the states they serve," the report says. "Mainstream policy debates about the causes of access inequality focus on 'deficiencies' of students and K-12 schools."

But the report -- funded by the Joyce Foundation -- says this approach is at best incomplete and may be seriously flawed. "An alternative explanation for access inequality is that the enrollment priorities of some public research universities are biased against poor students and/or communities of color. Decades of research on organizational behavior finds that formal policy adoption is often a ceremonial effort to appease external stakeholders, while internal resource allocation is a reliable indicator of organizational priorities, suggesting a 'trust but verify' approach to university rhetoric about access.

"Scholarship on 'enrollment management' shows that universities are very purposeful about which students they pursue and expend substantial resources crafting their class," the report continued, adding that universities' choices on where they recruit are all but assuring an influx of wealthy, white students.

The study is the work of a research project called the Enrollment Management, Recruiting & Access project, or EMRA. Much of the work is based on methodical analysis of the public lists of high schools at which 15 public universities recruit, and then analyzing the demographics of those high schools. The lead researchers on the project are Crystal Han and Ozan Jaquette, both of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Karina Salazar of the University of Arizona.

The scholars published a preview of their ideas last year; this is the full analysis. The researchers acknowledge as a limitation of their study that they could not find data for all institutions, and that not all recruiting activities are focused on high school visits. At the same time, they argue that these visits are particularly important in recruiting out-of-state students, who may be less likely than in-state residents to know about a given research university, or to feel encouraged to apply.

The report acknowledges that many public universities engaged in the activities described face real fiscal challenges as many states have moved away from traditional levels of support for public higher education. The out-of-state strategy is seen by many public higher education leaders as a way to bring in high out-of-state tuition rates to support the overall operation.

And the report says that many of the public universities that it finds to be the worst offenders are located in states with particularly poor records of supporting public higher education. But the report says that public university leaders have a choice, and that the choices many are making are eroding their missions.

Consider the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the flagship institution in a state never accused of being too generous to higher education. The report notes increases in nonresident freshmen and net tuition revenue, during a period that state appropriations were stagnant.

Nonresident Freshmen and Net Tuition Revenue, University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa

  2002-03 2008-09 2017-18
Out-of-state freshmen 626 1,895 5,001
Net tuition revenue $105 million $225 million $493 million

This dramatic shift in out-of-state enrollment saw declines in the share of freshmen who were black or eligible for Pell Grants. How did this change take place?

In 2017, the study found, Alabama admissions representatives made 4,347 off-campus recruiting visits. Only 390 of the visits were in Alabama, where the university visited only 33 percent of public high schools. And those high schools "were concentrated in relatively affluent, predominantly white communities, largely avoiding high schools in Alabama’s 'Black Belt,' which enroll the largest concentration of African American students."

In-state recruiting "was dwarfed by the 3,957 out-of-state recruiting visits, which spanned metropolitan areas across the U.S.," the report says. "The university made 2,310 visits to out-of-state public high schools. These visits focused on schools in affluent communities, with visited schools having a much higher percent of white students than nonvisited schools. Incredibly, the university made 935 visits to out-of-state private high schools, more than double the total number of in-state recruiting visits. The University of Alabama represents an extreme case of a transformation occurring at many public research universities across the nation. Public research universities were founded to provide upward mobility for high-achieving state residents and designated the unique responsibility of preparing the future professional, business and civic leaders of the state."

The report is also critical of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. UMass visited out-of-state high schools where, on average, black, Latinx and Native American students made up 25 percent of the population. But those groups make up 44 percent of students at high schools in the vicinity of those visited by UMass.

While there is no presumption that every high school will receive a visit from every out-of-state public university, the report says, clear patterns emerge. If a high school outside Massachusetts has an enrollment that is below 20 percent black, Latinx and Native American, there is an 8 percent chance of it receiving a visit from UMass. But in the area, a high school with a 90-plus-percent enrollment from those groups has a 2 percent chance.

The University of Alabama did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ed Blaguszewski, executive director of strategic communications at UMass, said via email that he was not convinced that high school visits were a measure only of a university's commitment. He said that some high schools are so impoverished that they lack the resources to organize college fairs, or to host admissions officers, even if they would like to visit. In these cases, he said, UMass works directly with counselors to reach potential students, so the lack of a visit does not mean a lack of engagement with the high school.

More broadly, Blaguszewski said UMass should be judged not by its out-of-staters, but by the increasing diversity of its in-state population.

Some of the low-income students UMass is enrolling are being financed by the larger nonresident tuition rates paid by out-of-staters, he said. "Part of that success, in an era of limited state support due to many budget pressures on the commonwealth, is that bringing in income from out of state allows us to keep the in-state costs lower and to offer more need-based aid to our in-state students," he said.

Jaquette, in an interview, rejected the idea that out-of-state recruitment supports the funds that pay for low-income in-state students. He said that the statistics on the out-of-staters speak for themselves, that public universities are recruiting and enrolling wealthy students. And those slots, he said, could have gone to in-state students. He also said that it is not always apparent that the out-of-state tuition revenue really does provide aid for others. He noted that, once colleges start recruiting out-of-staters in large numbers, they focus more on amenities (since the out-of-state students are comparing multiple public and private institutions). Nicer residence halls and big-time athletics are expensive to maintain, he said, but are a key part of the recruitment to places like Alabama.

So is the solution caps on nonresident students, as some states have -- either formally or with expectations set by governors?

Jaquette said he is hesitant to suggest these, without the states assuming some responsibility for providing more money. "Without nonresident enrollment caps being tied to states providing agreed-upon levels of state funding, this becomes an unfunded mandate," he said. "The university has all the responsibility and the state has no incentive to fund its universities." The risk there, he said, is the universities balance their budgets with larger classes, greater reliance on adjuncts, fewer sections, etc. But at the same time, he said, flagship universities should not just go for the out-of-state students -- at least not in large numbers and with an emphasis on the wealthy. They need to push for adequate levels of support, he said.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in an interview that he was bothered by drawing conclusions based on 15 universities. Further, he said that many recruitment efforts wouldn't show up in a review of websites, such as that done by the researchers on this project. When he was president of Michigan State University, he said, he gave talks at high schools in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan, but he said he doubted those were counted as official school visits, even if the purpose was to introduce students to the university.

McPherson said he cares deeply about maintaining state universities' ties to their states. But he said that the experience of in-state students is enhanced by learning and living with people from all over the world.

There may be concerns, he said, if in-state enrollment drops. But if the size of institutions grows, this may be a necessary strategy. "We may have out-of-state students who pay full price," he said. "We've been pushed into this as a way for some of the out-of-state students to pay for some in-state costs, and I don't know that there have been a lot of options to tackle this problem."

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