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State Universities with Improving Out of State Admissions Odds?

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

With regular decision acceptances out and data for the current admissions cycle getting released, the headline numbers seen by most families are ever more daunting as it relates to college acceptances. Applications are at their highest even as acceptances hit record lows – so there are reasons to be nervous about college admissions, but there are also opportunities.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit providing information to partner universities; it has data from 3,600 schools, giving it a very good view of higher education in the United States.

The Research Center recently released the most recent version of its “Stay Informed” report (March 23, 2023) that looks at nationwide enrollment trends. We have long had an interest in the data and published on it before, as we think it provides color that tends to get overlooked.

Of specific interest to us is the state-by-state enrollment data in the report, what that means to state university systems, and how changes in enrollment rates can create opportunities for families looking at colleges.

State university systems are funded by the states they are in and walk a tightrope between their mission of educating state residents and increased profitability through a focus on higher margin out-of-state residents. Election years, bad economies and lower volumes are all forces that can push universities in different directions as it relates to policy. The Clearinghouse’s recent data release leads us to believe that there are now a few systems and schools that may be better targets for out-of-state students.

In a national enrollment environment that was generally more positive year-over-year, a few states reported far worse numbers than the year prior: Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Washington. While much of the Northeast and. to a lesser degree, the Midwest were generally weak, the data from these three states stood out, with enrollment declines of (6.4%), (5.2%) and (5%).

Importantly, the negative trends have gotten attention. Penn State’s trustee committee called for an update on trends and new enrollment strategies, and the Minnesota system requested $48 million dollars from the legislature to cover tuition shortfalls. In Washington, the Seattle Times has been highlighting poor enrollment trends and financial stress for some time.

The path that strained state university systems have generally taken over the past several years has been to attempt to increase out-of-state enrollment. If there is no pushback from state residents, we generally view this as a path they will continue to pursue. Importantly, with Penn State 42% out of state, Minnesota Twin Cities 30% out of state and the University of Washington at 16%, we suspect all three flagship schools can add students from outside their home states without too much of a problem. A goal of adding out-of-state students might make all three schools easier for out-of-state residents to gain admission to for current seniors. All three universities are well respected, with Washington ranked #19, Minnesota ranked #23 and Penn State #31 among public university peers in the most recent U.S. News survey.

Of additional note is that enrollment trends in Wisconsin and Indiana swung negative this year, something their flagship schools in Madison and Bloomington might be thinking about and proactively looking to increase out-of-state students. Wisconsin Madison has seen out-of-state enrollment increase consistently over the past several years; sitting at a bit under 47%, it is at a level where there have been some rumblings but, to date, the trend seems to be going higher. At only 37%, the out-of-state population at Indiana Bloomington would seem to have headroom to go higher if the state felt it was prudent.

There are always opportunities .


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