Bloodsport: Recruiting for Public Universities

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

Interesting piece in InsideHigherEd.com this morning by Scott Jaschik about the recruitment activities of public universities. A recent study out of UCLA suggests that many public universities spend more time recruiting out-of-state compared to in state.

The study authors suggest that much of this is because our devolved higher education system requires students to search out colleges and colleges to search out students. As well, they acknowledge that out-of-state, and more so, international students are attractive to institutions because they are “full-pay” students, often paying the full freight (and higher) of the cost of attendance, rather than state and institution-subsidized tuition and fee charges.

Another reason for this interest is US News and World Report. The push for higher rankings comes from attracting higher quality out-of-state students to raise the average GPA of the institution, a prime factor in the institutional rankings formula.

We know that postsecondary institutions are mission oriented and driven, to a large degree. And the reading of most mission statements is to prepare our citizenry to aid society in a global world. At least something to that effect. But with “mission driven” comes “mission creep,” and institutions have developed an insatiable appetite for “more.” They want more students, full payers and high achievers. There is no “stay in your lane” for administrators any more. To continue the analogy, presidents and boards have turned off their lane change vibration indicators in their cars. The value of out-of-state is massive.

Presidents are hired to increase rankings and revenues through higher enrollment management yields and access to more alumni and philanthropic support as well as federal research funds. Everything is amped up in higher education and has been for a while. The pandemic will only serve to leverage and already twisted system of postsecondary studies.

The push for out-of-state student enrollment has, to a large degree, become bloodsport. Institutions, public and private, have little to no empathy or interest in how other institutions fare. Sure, there are partnerships between institutions, but only when that is a pathway to a more prosperous end for Institution “A.” There is a seemingly fine line between working diligently—Boards and Administration—to improve the quality of the institution while increasing revenues and the business model of the institution. But the line isn’t very thin at all. There exists a wide chasm between the role of fundraising and revenues and student learning.

This can be argued for all institutional sectors. And if we were to take a straw vote and ask which institutions best personified societal needs, we might pick this order: public two-year, public four-year, private four-year, and for-profit institutions. This is also arguable, of course,  because we understand the four-year institutions create the professionals, such as the doctors, lawyers, and researchers, while the two-year prepares a wide swath of people who are needed in society through shorter certificate and diploma programs. The reality is they are all needed, but they each have their own place. And this has more to do comparing four-year publics and privates. Over the years, the publics have perhaps become far too jealous of the revenue generation by the privates, especially the elite private institutions. I’m not just the Ivy Leagues, but the Research I institutions that earn vast sums of money from the federal government, via the US Department of Defense, Agriculture, Labor, Commerce, and Education, to name only a few. In 2019, institutions received $44.5 billion in federal research funds. Johns Hopkins University, by itself, received $3 billion in funding. To be that in perspective, that is 3,000 millions. (Some people have difficulty discerning the difference between Ms and Bs. The difference is large)

Cynics might say that higher education is less about learning and more about money. That statement may be correct to a degree, but institutions are still about learning and research funds help provide laboratories of learning for future experts and researchers, as well as pushing our scientific breakthroughs. Our moon shots and mRNA for COVID-19 would not have happened without institutional support. Our institutions are extraordinarily valuable to US and global society.

But the issue of public universities and recruitment is a real danger to the sector. There needs to be a limitation to this “vaulting ambition” and insatiable appetite of institutions to focus nationally rather than regionally or locally. States would be better with a clearly articulated enrollment system, such as California, where applications require students to provide alternate institutions of choice across the state. The system processing determines where they can be placed (they may be offered enrollment at all of their choice institutions, or none). Perhaps this eliminates some of the “sport” being played by public institutions, by centralizing the enrollment process. There are downsides to this, of course, as institutions may get students that really don’t want to be there. A student whose first choice is Berkeley may not want to attend Merced, for instance. Similarly, a student whose heart is set on UVa may not want to one of my alma maters, Old Dominion University. So it isn’t a “clean” solution.

What happens to public higher education if the escalation of competition continues? The North Carolina legislature was so concerned about this that, several years ago, they capped out-of-state student enrollment at 19 percent because, in their belief, state funding of their public university system should be primarily for their students, not students from other states. For us across the border in Virginia, there is no cap. Institutions like UVa have a 35 percent out-of-state undergraduate enrollment rate, double the 18-percent rate at UNC Chapel Hill.

The most likely result for many public institutions is that in-state students will be relegated to their second- and third-tier institutions, or they, themselves, will look at other states, too. My sense is that many of these students also end up higher-priced private institutions that are less selective but barely bat an eye at GPAs and other academic indicators.

If this is seen as an issue, and I’m not sure it is, then the solution starts at reducing the incentive. Rankings don’t help; allowing institutions (and systems) to go for full-payers also is an incentive that could be broken. In the end, I think North Carolina has it right: limit the percentage of students that come from out of state. They still can get full payers (at UNC, in-state tuition and fees is around $9,000; out of state is a whopping $37,000, or four times higher than in-state) but also serve the state constituency. It seems prudent.

Of course, what would this mean for states like Vermont and Iowa that are built on the premise that out-of-state students will attend? The University of Vermont enjoys a 77 percent out-of-state enrollment rate while U Iowa has a 53 percent rate. Changing any rules, federally, would cripple these institutions.

There are no simple solutions and perhaps fewer solutions for a problem that most people don’t think exists. The uber-competition at the public level is not good for students or taxpayers, regardless of any argument for market competition. These are taxpayer subsidized systems and users, thus they don’t stand up to any scrutiny in terms of economic markets. It simply ups the gamesmanship of higher education, and our system is already gamed enough.

It’s time to refocus the “public” in the public higher education.

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