At risk of sounding like famed 60 Minutes resident curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, the world has changed drastically in so many ways since 1986—landlines have been replaced by cell phones, actual socializing has been replaced by social media, and America’s highest office is now held by a reality star rather than a B movie actor…okay, so not much of a leap on that last one.

In our much narrower world of college admissions, the doubling of the number of freshmen attending out-of-state universities over the last 30 years would be among the top headlines. This may seem like an insignificant change compared to the aforementioned technological and social shifts, but an admissions professional from the mid-80s would raise his wayfarers and spit out his Bubble Tape gum in pure disbelief—it’s that much of a departure.

Back then, public universities served a straightforward purpose, allowing residents the opportunity for a good education at a reasonable price. Today, the situation is far more complex.

As public universities search for new ways to overcome budget shortfalls, they’ve had to get creative, and that means looking beyond state lines for sources of revenue. We’ve written previously on the out-of-state admissions edge enjoyed by applicants who are willing and able to pay full tuition freight, thus filling up the university’s coffers. But that is only one consequence of the altered landscape.

Public’s recruiting high school superstars

The University of Alabama is one school that has begun aggressively recruiting students from around the country who have Ivy-League credentials. Over the last decade, the University’s total merit-aid offerings have risen from $8.3 million to over $100 million.

Process those numbers for a moment.

In an effort to rise to the level of prestigious flagships like The University of Michigan and The University of Virginia, Alabama is willing to pay for top talent. Free rides are available for students with high test scores and competitive high school transcripts.

The University of Alabama is hardly the only school employing this recruiting strategy. Louisiana Tech hands out merit aid to 65% of out-of-state applicants with an average award of over $17,000. Bowling Green University in Ohio offers 86% of non-homegrown Buckeyes an average of $10,000 in aid. Even if to a lesser extent than the aforementioned examples, just about every public university has followed the game plan to some degree.

What is their motivation?

It’s not hard to deduce why public institutions lure out-of-state applicants who will pay full tuition. Universities’ reasons for recruiting non-resident teens on full scholarships are a bit more complicated. When a state college manages to lure one top student from a distant high school, they put their brand on the radar of future graduates of that school, including ones who might pay in full. The guiding theory is essentially the old cliché: you’ve got to spend money to make money. The next year, five students from, say Ohio for example, might apply to The University of Maryland; the next year it could be ten.

Even recipients of large scholarships end up forking over a good deal of money to the school whether through room & board, meal plans, or even overpriced mugs, banners, and teddy bears sporting the school insignia.

How you can take advantage

If you are going to college on any sort of a budget, you and your parents should be on the lookout for bargains. Non-exceptional students (relative to the school to which they are applying), will not fare well financially at out-of-state flagship universities. In these belt-tightening times where state funding evaporates more each year, such out-of-town cash cows are the very students keeping the campus lights aglow.

Yet, those well above the school-specific mean SAT/ACT and GPA can take advantage of this trend by receiving a high quality education at a greatly reduced cost. As a prospective college student, simply being open to the value that out-of-state publics may be willing to offer you can help uncover some of the best college bargains on the higher education market.

Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).