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Old Frustrations, Potential New Solution For Out Of State Enrollment

For students graduating high school this spring, getting into Virginia’s elite schools will be a challenge. That’s because of financial incentives that has administrators looking outside Virginia.

When Sacha Brenac was a high school senior in Arlington, he wanted to go to the College of William and Mary. But getting in was competitive. About one third of the students there are from out of state. That’s the highest percentage of out-of-state students in Virginia. It’s also a way for William and Mary to make more money than it would by accepting students like him, students who pay far less than out of state students. “From my perspective, and I think from a lot of people’s perspective, school shouldn’t be a money making scheme. It should be about educating the next generation."

Brenac ended up at the University of Mary Washington, which has about 9 percent out of state students.

"High ed is supposed to be about education, not about making money, Brenac says. "And even though Mary Washington does accept a lot of in-state students, you still did feel that culture among the administration of Mary Washington. For them, school is a business.”

Higher education is a business, though. A big business with lots of employees and major financial incentives. That’s why colleges and universities love out of state students so much, because they bring in more money. "At some of these schools, out of state students are paying over 200 percent of cost," says Quentin Kidd, a professor at Christopher Newport University.

Back in 2004, state leaders were concerned that was creating a problem. So they created a new cap — 25 percent. Public colleges and universities were not allowed to take more than 25 percent of their students from out of state. But that cap did not apply to three schools that already had out-of-state percentages higher than 25 percent. They were grandfathered in. And they got to keep the percentage they had at the time, which has been frozen in place for the last decade. “The schools that are grandfathered are the schools that are causing the frustration among Virginians because their kids can’t get into them,” Kidd says.

William and Mary got to keep that 34 percent of out-of-state population it had when the rate was frozen back in 2004. Since that time. It’s been able to add more out of state students by adding more in-state students, which allows it to keep the balance without violating the law. Thirty-one percent of  University of Virginia students are from out-of-state. At Virginia Tech, it’s 29 percent.

“There’s also the issue of reduced state support for higher ed," says Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington.  “And so for those last 30 years there’s been a numbers game where universities have tried to ramp up out-of-state tuition, which is more revenue to the university, in exchange for the declining state share.”

All those out of state students at UVA and William and Mary aren’t necessarily a bad thing, says Peter Blake. He’s director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. "If you don’t have the revenue from the out of state students, then you would have less of a capacity to enroll in state students and you would have to pass higher costs on to the Virginia students.”

But what about all those frustrated students who get into highly selective private schools in other states but can't get into UVA or William and Mary? Blake says one potential solution is to look at enrollment projections and set a number of students based on actual demand. That way the numbers won't be based on an arbitrary percentage.

"If an institution meets the enrollment projections as approved by SCHEV for in-state students, then they can enroll more out of state students. It might wreck the percentage," Blake admits. "But it would still allow for substantial more numbers of Virginia students to enroll in Virginia.”

So, for now, those percentages are frozen in place. But one thing that isn’t frozen is the cost of tuition. In the last five years, the cost of tuition at Virginia schools has increased 21 percent. That’s on top of a system of higher education that’s already one of the most expensive in the country. Virginia ranks seventh in the nation for the cost of tuition and fees at its colleges and universities.

Representatives of Virginia Tech and William and Mary say their schools are following the law.  The University of Virginia did not respond.

(Note: Military schools, like Virginia Military Institute, and Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) are exempt from the 25 % cap.)

Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.