When we learn about Civics and Government in 8th grade, we are presented with the high-minded ideals of democracy—the Bill of Rights, our masterfully designed system of checks and balances, and, of course, one anthropomorphized 1970’s cartoon bill’s odyssey toward passage. Notably left out of the discussion are topics such as interest groups, lobbyists, campaign finance insanity, gerrymandering—you know, the seedy realities of the American political system.

Through a similarly innocent lens, most people understand the function of state schools to be along these lines: taxpayers partially fund state universities and, in exchange, their children reap the benefits of admissions preference and reduced tuition, should they one day elect to attend.

Then there is the truth, as it has evolved over the past decade…

A changing landscape

The financial crunch at many institutions, brought on by a 17% average reduction in state funding since the ’08 recession, has led many top public schools to begin drawing more from the out-of-state pool for the simple, bottom-line reason that those students are not eligible for in-state tuition and must pay a higher out-of-state rate.

This money grab has led to a seismic shift in admissions policies at schools such as UCLA and Berkeley, where admissions standards for out-of-state students have actually grown slightly less competitive than for in-staters. A recent state audit in California found that the University of California system, as a whole, has been favorable to out-of-staters in their admissions practices, to the detriment of residents of The Golden State. In fact, the number of non-Californians attending has more than doubled in the last decade.

This is not just a California phenomenon. At public flagships like the University of Alabama and the University of Michigan, the number of non-resident students on campus now actually outnumber in-staters. Other schools, such as the well-regarded University of Wisconsin-Madison have eliminated caps that previously existed on the maximum percentage of non-resident students.

Many other well-respected, yet cash-crunched colleges, such the University of Illinois, Arizona State University, University of Massachusetts, and the University of Delaware are aggressively recruiting out-of-state applicants, and in some cases, relaxing admissions standards for these higher-paying populations.

Still a tough road

While the number of out-of-state applicants being admitted is rising at the vast majority of public institutions across the country, competition for a spot at an elite flagship remains intense. The University of Virginia is among those prestigious state schools who, for financial reasons, has begun increasing the number of non-Virginians on campus. However, due to the volume of out-of-state applications, non-residents are admitted at just a 24% clip compared to 44% of Virginians. The same pattern can be observed at UNC-Chapel Hill, where 52% of residents are admitted versus just 19% of non-residents.

Consider the money

For those prospective college students considering crossing state lines to take advantage of this development, do not mistake an admissions edge as sign of value. Annual out-of-state costs at the University of Michigan run close to 60 grand, and roughly double what Michigan residents pay. UCLA charges nearly $25,000 more to those who hail from outside the Golden State. Penn State, a bargain for PA residents, climbs to approximately $50,000 for outsiders, and after accounting for need-based and merit-based aid, proves as more expensive than Franklin & Marshall, Lafayette, or Lehigh—three highly competitive colleges in the same state. That’s right, on top of the steep non-resident markup, prestigious public schools of this ilk rarely offer significant financial aid packages and rely on out-of-staters who can and will pay the maximum tuition.

The bottom line

Applicants with access to unlimited funds or those simply dead-set on attending an out-of-state flagship school will benefit from these institutions’ present financial situation. On the other end, students counting on earning admission at their local flagship may face tougher admissions standards than in the past, as they are competing for a diminishing number of spots.

From either vantage point, it’s important to have a full understanding of this less-than-ideal reality, lest you believe that admission into a state school is as straightforward and pure as the aforementioned sanitized, Schoolhouse Rock overview of the political process.

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).