The affordability crisis in U.S. colleges and universities has an unlikely new culprit: state school admissions offices. Federal data from the 2014-15 admissions cycle revealed that many state schools have been steadily accepting greater proportions of out-of-state students over the last 10 years. The University of Alabama was the biggest offender, with over 60 percent of the 2015 freshman class coming from outside the state. These students, who pay much more tuition than in-state students, have become an increasingly lucrative revenue stream for state schools. More out-of-state students means fewer opportunities for in-state students to take advantage of lower tuition rates; in effect, demographic shifts are shoving many low-income students out of their chance for a high-quality education. State universities are on the prowl for money, and the students who need them the most will suffer for it.
In fairness, the focus on revenue-raising is the fault of state governments. In the last decade, states have reduced overall funding for public universities despite the growing enrollment. Public research universities have especially suffered, with a 28 percent decrease in state and local funding from 2008 to 2013 after adjusting for inflation. This reduced funding has forced institutions to make up for the loss by hiking up tuition. The promise of state schools was a chance for low-income families to afford the same opportunities as their wealthier neighbors. By shifting the burden to wealthier out-of-state applicants, state schools are drifting out of reach for the very students they are meant to serve.
State schools are now being forced to make a terrible choice. Either they continue raising tuition costs, which would supplement their growing costs but cut deeply in the pockets of all their students, or accept additional out-of-state students to keep the on-paper costs the same but keep local students out. Furthering this effort, public universities have recently begun allocating higher proportions of their budgets toward attractive scholarships rather than need-based financial aid. But there is no such thing as a free lunch; this move is nothing more than an accounting trick to mask the exclusion of local low-income students.
One of the most important services of state universities is to ensure affordable, quality education for its students. In order to provide this, these institutions must procure funding in ways that do not adversely affect its current or potential students. Accepting more out-of-state students is a bad move, but one that was ultimately driven by state schools’ thirst for funding, precipitated by an increasing lack of government support. This cycle of revenue-seeking threatens to shove out the students who most need affordable education. State universities need to remember the importance of the affordable education that they are meant to provide — not just on paper, but in practice as well.
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