At a time when getting admitted to many flagship universities is harder than ever, a growing number are considering plans to increase enrollments -- dramatically in some cases -- of out-of-state applicants.
The theory behind these plans is straightforward: Public universities charge much more for out-of-state students; the parents who must pay those bills vote in other states, so these tuition dollars are much less politically costly than those gained by raising in-state rates; states have run out of money. Add those factors together, and all of the sudden everyone wants a larger national student body.
Some flagships have been doing this for years. At the University of Vermont, three quarters of freshmen are from out of state, and the University of Delaware routinely enrolls more from out of state than in state. But whether out-of-state enrollments can grow nationwide -- and whether they should -- is doubted by many policy experts.
They note that the states that successfully enroll many non-residents don't have massive in-state demand. Some worry that the quest for high non-resident tuition will amount to an increased emphasis on enrolling wealthy white students -- those who are likely to be well served by some college no matter what. And guidance counselors who work with students say that this strategy may work for some institutions, but may be a flop at others.
Nonetheless, it's clear that the terrible budget situation has many flagship presidents thinking that this policy shift needs to happen (even if none of them would approach the levels of Vermont or Delaware). Consider these ideas and policies that are in play:
- The University of California at Berkeley is planning to admit more out-of-state residents this year. Berkeley's non-resident undergraduate population is quite low (around 10 percent typically, counting both U.S. residents outside California and international students). Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor, told The Contra Costa Times  that he hopes that the shift will set off some anger from California residents, saying: "Actually, I hope for some pushback. This is connected to the state's failure to pay for the University of California."
- While faculty leaders at the University of California have been critical of the administration's management of the state's severe budget crisis, they too are calling for more out-of-state students. Department chairs at UC San Diego issued a statement calling for significant increases in out-of-state enrollments. "Admitting more students from other states would also enhance UCSD's national reputation and it will benefit California in the long run since a significant number of American students who go to university out of state end up settling in the state where they attended university. It is in California's interest to attract some of the best and the brightest high school graduates from around the country, to provide them with a world-class education and then to reap the tax revenues that result when these university graduates enter California's workforce," said the statement. 
- The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is planning to increase undergraduate enrollment by 15 percent over the next decade, with the additional students coming from out of state. If the plan succeeds, the share of undergraduate enrollment from outside Massachusetts would grow to 30 percent  from 20 percent.
- Rutgers University, where out-of-state enrollment is currently about 10 percent, is planning a gradual increase to about 25 percent.
- The president of the University of Colorado wants the state to lift caps  on non-resident enrollment.
- The comptroller of New York State issued a report  last month calling on the State University of New York to increase non-resident tuition, with the goal of increasing revenues
The primary motivation in just about all of these moves is money. According to data released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics,  during 2008-9, public four-year institutions nationally reported average tuition and required fees of $6,070 for in-state undergraduates and $14,378 for those from out of state.
State philosophy on out-of-state enrollments varies widely, although very few institutions approach the ratios of Vermont. The University of Michigan has a high out-of-state percentage, with only about two-thirds of slots going to Michiganders.  The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in contrast, has a freshman class that is 82 percent in state. 
The Policy Questions
The fear many public universities have had historically about out-of-state enrollment increases has been a backlash from parents and lawmakers who resent the idea (even if it may not be true) that non-residents may be taking slots away. That's why universities in less populous states have long relied on non-residents -- while being able to tell their legislators that their constituents aren't losing out. On its admissions Web site,  the University of Delaware draws attention to the differing admissions rates for in-state applicants (69 percent) and out-of-state applicants (between 42 and 48 percent).
Daniel Fogel, president of the University of Vermont, said that his institution is "kind of a poster child for long-term reliance on non-resident students," but that Vermont's demographics make that possible. "There aren't enough high school graduates to populate a research university with the programs the state would like its students to have," he said.
So while the out-of-state tuition helps financially, there are educational gains by having the critical mass to support a broad range of majors and research centers, he said. Fogel said that he still hears complaints from Vermont citizens, but that they generally understand the educational case he makes in response about why the university needs non-resident students. Nearly 12 percent of this year's freshmen are minority students, and that's a level of diversity that would also be impossible without the out of state students, Fogel said.
Fogel noted that to have a steady stream of high quality out of state students, public universities need to do more than just open their doors. Vermont has an extensive alumni network involved in identifying and recruiting applicants, many second and third generation out of state families connected to the university, and long-term relationships with high schools that are outside the state. In many respects, he said, Vermont's admissions operation resembles that of a private college -- and involves long-term investments that not all public universities make.
A concern for the universities seeking more out-of-state students, Fogel said, is a shift away from public mission. "There is the risk of subtly and not so subtly undermining the public mission," he said. "Then you are like a private university that isn't at the top of the pecking order, looking for the sweet spot of the kids who are qualified to come and can pay all or most of the cost, and that's a pretty market-driven agenda."
Others share that concern. Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said he worried about any state -- like California -- that moves to recruit more out-of-state students at a time when there are qualified residents losing slots, and those being recruited are likely to be less diverse than the residents of the state. He noted that most University of California campuses have more ethnic and racial diversity than much of American higher education. "So now that the majority of kids in the state will be more Latino, you are going to recruit more out-of-state students" who are likely to be white? he asked.
While Berkeley officials and UC faculty members have said that they believe any lost slots in California will build political pressure to support higher education, Callan said he was "very skeptical." He said he doesn't see signs that the public would respond in that way. "There's a danger here that you cut off your long-term support," he said.
At the same time, Callan acknowledged that in California and elsewhere, state officials considering these options face terrible budgets. "It's the dysfunctional nature of state government that makes these things possible."
David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley and the author of Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, said he viewed the out-of-state trend as "one of those lamentable necessities." He said that the University of California campuses and some other flagships have been "an equal opportunity gateway" for so many low-income students. Ultimately, he said that these plans work financially only by going after well-off students, and thus can encourage universities in that direction. You can easily end up, he said, with public universities "with a private school profile."
And in some states, it's not even certain that drawing in more out-of-state tuition revenue would help the university system. Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, said she's intrigued by the idea of admitting more out-of-state students and using the extra funds to help improve SUNY for all of its students. But she noted that in SUNY's recent tuition hike, almost all of the additional money raised went to the state, not to SUNY. "How can we recruit out of state students on the assumption that they will help the university" if very little of the money ends up on campuses? she asked.
Zimpher also noted the importance of competition for non-resident students, and especially for international students. If lawmakers push for sharp increases in non-resident tuition as a money-raising strategy, it could backfire "and you can price yourself out of the market," she said.
Attracting more out-of-state students could benefit the state, she added. "We're a state that really wants in-migration," she said. But good tuition policy needs to be sensitive to the different demographics of different campuses, the need for campuses to serve the existing population, and a range of other factors. "I'm very interested in the proposition" of more non-New York students, she said, if the policies are set up correctly.
Will They Come?
Beyond the policy questions, there is of course another issue: If flagships open up more slots to non-residents, will top students apply?
Guidance counselors and consultants who advise students and their families about admissions here have very mixed reactions. Most say that there is no doubt that if Berkeley wants more out-of-state students, it will have no problem finding them -- with the highest of academic qualifications. The same is true for other highly prestigious universities.
Moving down a little bit in the pecking order, there may be more challenges. And the expectations vary considerably based on geography.
Julie A. Manhan, founder of College Navigation, advises students in Washington State. Most stay close to home. Of those looking out of state, "it's more about geography than anything else," she said. Many want to go someplace where they don't need to carry an umbrella at all times, so California is by far the biggest draw. Depending on the academic qualifications of her clients, she has students looking at a variety of University of California and California State University campuses. Looking at similar academic institutions without the California sun would be a hard sell, she said.
Generally, those of her clients who end up in the Northeast are almost always drawn by private colleges.
Jim Jump, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and director of guidance at St. Christopher's School, in Richmond, said he also sees clear patterns in student choices that may make it difficult for some public flagships to attract them. Many of his best students do look out of state, but typically at private colleges, he said. Those who go to out-of-state publics -- frequently applying in the states south of Virginia -- are those worried that they can't get in to the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech or the College of William and Mary, and who think (correctly) that they may have better luck in another state.
He said that if flagships outside Virginia start taking more out-of-state students, "it will make only a marginal difference for my students," in part because Virginia has great public options in state.
John B. Boshoven, director of college counseling at a public high school in Ann Arbor, Mich., said his students might seem perfect for this flagship strategy. They grow up in the shadow of the University of Michigan and many thus love the idea of a big research university, but many still don't want to go to college in their hometown. This results in some looking at Michigan State University or the other public universities in Michigan, and some considering other Big 10 institutions, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison or the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
The kinds of students who consider those choices may be the ones who would benefit, if those institutions were to admit more non-residents. But Boshoven said that even though he holds those universities in high regard, he also always asks students and parents a question when they consider these choices: "Are you willing to pay $10,000 or $15,000 more for a similar education with a different zip code?"
And as a result, the typical pattern is for his best students to go to Michigan -- or, if they leave the state, to go to small private colleges, having made the decision that they want to study at a liberal arts college, not a research university.
The way flagships outside of Michigan could become more competitive for his students, Boshoven said, would be to offer generous merit scholarships, which many already do through state scholarship programs designed to attract the best in-state students. Boshoven said that parents "feel valued" when their children are offered merit scholarships, and might "buy into this approach," even if it means a higher bill than would have been the case for an in-state institution. Of course, such discounting also cuts into the revenue that flagships are hoping to gain.
Mark A. Montgomery, a Colorado-based consultant to applicants and families, said he sees interest in public universities outside of the state, but mainly either those with very strong reputations -- "the Berkeleys, the Michigans, the North Carolinas" -- or those that are close and have strong recruiting efforts in the state. He cited the University of Wyoming and Montana State University as two institutions that have built awareness in that way.
His clients who apply to the Northeast or the Midwest tend to be looking at small liberal arts colleges, which differ in many ways from the large public universities that are dominant in their home state and are so much less expensive than flagships elsewhere. "If you could go to Boulder, why would you go to UMass?"
Larry Dannenberg, CEO of College Solutions, which counsels high school students and their parents, said that there is already a market for the flagships that want more out-of-state students: "There are kids every year who will tell you: 'I'll go anywhere as long as it's not in state.' "
As he sees more flagships trying to attract out-of-state students, he said, he'll adjust his recommendations to students, suggesting that it may be worth applying to an out-of-state flagship that might have been out of reach academically before. "I'll tell them 'you might not have gotten in before, but you might now, and by the way, if you don't need financial aid, you've got a better shot.' "
Dannenberg said he sees parents using "a sliding scale of price sensitivity" and that for some who may balk at the most expensive private colleges, a flagship out of state may represent "a compromise" with their children.
One group Dannenberg predicted won't be lured to out-of-state flagships: the children of professors. More than 10 percent of his clients each year are academic families, and he finds that the students in this group almost never select large doctoral universities; instead, these days, they opt for liberal arts colleges. He noted that concerns about quality of the undergraduate experience at large universities matter to these parents, even some who teach at such institutions.
"They cringe at the thought of their child with teaching assistants," he said. "They would rather see their child at a Gettysburg, with small classes and learning how to learn. They know that if they go to large state institutions, in many cases they are going to end up with large classes."