Want A College Education? Sorry, Only Wealthy Out-Of-Staters Need Apply

Once upon a time, the mission of state universities was to provide an education to as many of the state’s residents as possible, for as low a cost as possible. But “once upon a time” is for fairy tales — and that’s exactly what a public college education is becoming. You can thank the state legislatures for that.

During the last decade, lawmakers have pursued a slash-and-burn policy toward funding state universities. Since 2008, 36 states have cut funding by more than 20%. Two — Arizona and New Hampshire — have cut it in half and another 11 by more than a third.

Universities are scrambling to make up the difference. They’ve hit upon a strategy that is becoming increasingly widespread, to the detriment of their own in-state population. They are pursuing wealthy out-of-state students, especially those at the top of their class, because the tuition they are charged is much greater than in-state tuition.

In order to attract these kids, schools are offering them some merit-based financial assistance. That means that the best and brightest get money to attend, regardless of financial need.

Increasingly, for in-state students, there are fewer spots available to them. For instance, the University of California, Berkeley cut in-state freshman enrollment by 384 between 2000 and 2012, but increased out-of-state enrollment by over 300 in the same period. Beyond that, they enrolled eight times as many international students — which you can read as kids from wealthy families.

In addition, financial aid resources that used to go to the needy are being diverted to the wealthy. In 1996, low-income students at public universities were twice as likely to receive aid as wealthier students. By 2012, the total amount given to students in the bottom quarter income bracket and the total given to those in the top quarter was almost equal.

The more prestigious the university, the greater the disparity. Research universities are vitally invested in protecting their reputations as providers of a premium education. Increasingly, that means at a premium price.

The University of North Dakota, where it’s more difficult to attract out-of-state students, over 41% of freshmen students who do not have financial need nevertheless receive merit aid, averaging $1173 per student. The Ohio State University awards 30% of these students merit aid, averaging $6757 per student. Outraged yet? Check out pages 6-7 and 11-13 of the study by New America’s Education Policy Program to see if your favorite state institution ranks in the top.

One of the most extreme examples of recruiting top out-of-state students comes from the University of Alabama. Not only is UofA aggressive about scouting the nation to fill the bench for the Crimson Tide football team, but it also has 30 full-time admissions officers scattered throughout the country. The campus in Tuscaloosa now has more total out-of-state students than in-state ones.

The University of Alabama’s new policy was laid out by Robert E. Witt when he took over as president in 2003. Witt has a business background. Many campuses that used to view education as their primary mission have now refashioned themselves after a business model.

The concept of public higher education was enshrined in federal law by a series of acts called the Morrill Land Grant Acts. The laws granted every state 30,000 acres of federal land, beginning in 1862. The land, or money from its sale, was to be used in establishing institutions of higher education. Its purpose was:

…without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

The “industrial classes” were not the privileged wealthy, but that is the distortion that has crept into the mission of many of these original land-grant universities.

There is a solution, but it would require massive political changes that don’t seem to be on the horizon. One would be to take state legislatures to court to force them to take care of their responsibilities toward their constituents.

In Arizona, whose legislature is on track to add further cuts to the 50% already taken from university budgets, the state constitution mandates that public higher education be kept “nearly as free as possible.” Mark Killian, the chair of the university’s Board of Regents, recently called the move “absolutely, totally insane.” He recommended that the board sue the legislature for violating the constitution and take the case to the state Supreme Court.

While other states are steadily abandoning their students, North Carolina offers theirs some protection. No more than 18% of the University of North Carolina’s students can come from out-of-state, by law.

If voters in other states don’t insist on changes that provide protection, the greed that’s currently driving public universities will remove higher education — so essential to success in life — beyond the reach of all but society’s elite.

Feature photo adapted from Wikimedia and Bridget Coila on Flickr.