EUGENE, Ore. — After five straight years of seeing its undergraduate enrollment shrink, the University of Oregon is spending heavily on an ambitious new recruitment drive.

University leaders hope to expand the undergraduate student body by as many as 3,000 during the next eight years, from a projected 19,000 this fall to more than 22,000 in 2025.

Those added students will have one thing in common: They’ll all come from out of state, according to the UO administration’s financial projections.

The UO already has hired five new full-time high-school-student recruiters who will be based in other states, in addition to two existing recruiter positions. This academic year, the school also will increase its recruiting “presence” — typically meaning visits by UO staffers — in as many as 20 other states in the West, Midwest, South and on the East Coast. In total, the school’s annual admissions budget has been upped by $1.3 million, or almost 30 percent. Some of those extra dollars will go to in-state recruiting efforts.

The UO’s push to recruit more nonresident and international students isn’t new or unique. The UO and other public universities across the country have been enrolling more and more of them for more than a decade — a practice that at times has drawn criticism.

The UO’s goal is largely financial: Out-of-state students pay much higher tuition in an era when taxpayer support for Oregon public universities has sagged. This school year, a full-time nonresident student will pay $34,611 in tuition at the UO, compared with $11,571 for an Oregonian. Adding the projected 3,000 nonresident students by 2025 could boost the UO’s annual tuition revenue by $100 million at current rates.

Snagging high-achieving high schoolers from other states can also help boost a university’s academic prestige.

In the past decade, the UO’s nonresident undergraduate population has doubled, from 4,600 in the 2007-08 school year to 9,249 in 2016-17, going up almost every year. In the decade before that, the UO had kept that population flat, between 3,700 and 4,200 students.

From 2007 to 2016, Oregon State University and Portland State University also rapidly drew in more out-of-staters: OSU’s out-of-state undergraduate population jumped from 2,302 to 9,055, while PSU’s went from 10,829 to 15,060.

But the UO stands out for having the largest percentage of out-of-state students — 46.1 percent of undergraduates in the 2016-17 school year — among Oregon’s seven public universities. That breakdown wasn’t yet available for this year’s projected undergraduate student body, UO officials said Friday.

Public universities’ pursuit of out-of-state students has at times raised eyebrows across the country. Critics worry that, by acting more like private schools, universities are shifting away from their public purpose: helping low- and middle-income families from their own states receive a top-class education.

The key barometer for that criticism has always been: Is the growing number of out-of-state students impeding in-state high school graduates from getting into their local state university?

California, for example, this May adopted a strict nonresident cap for its popular and prestigious public universities after a state audit found that Californian college-age youth had been hurt by the increase in out-of-state and international student admissions.

UO officials insist they have no favoritism for out-of-staters — although the number of in-state students at the UO has slipped every year since 2011.

“There’s never been a time in our history that we’ve taken a resident’s spot and given it to a nonresident” student, UO President Michael Schill said in a recent interview. “We’re never going to do that.”

So far, some numbers bear that out. The UO continues to take the vast majority of Oregon high school graduates who apply. Its in-state acceptance rate has hovered between 82 and 87 percent since 2007, but hasn’t shown a downward trend in recent years. That’s much higher than the rates for out-of-state or international applicants.

And, unlike some other public universities that heavily recruit out-of-staters, the UO hasn’t geared its financial aid awards to out-of-staters.

While the dollar amount of waived tuition was almost equal for residents and nonresident students in the UO’s 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years, the school has retooled a key financial aid program in favor of in-state students. The shift has been dramatic: In the 2016-17 school year, Oregonians received tuition waivers and scholarships worth $20.5 million, almost double the $10.5 million allotted to out-of-staters.

“People in this state pay their taxes” to support public universities, said Roger Thompson, UO vice president for admissions. “There are extra benefits we give to in-state students.”

Still, even as it takes in ever-growing numbers of out-of-state students, the UO is enrolling fewer and fewer in-state students.

The head count has declined every year since 2011, a worrying sign for many. The in-state head count has dropped from 12,454 in 2011 to 10,818 in the school year that ended in June.

That decrease, of around 13 percent in total, has come even as the number of Oregon high school graduates has grown by 8 percent during those same six years — up to 38,471 students in 2016 — according to figures from the state Department of Education.

PSU’s in-state student head count also has declined steadily since 2011, by 12.6 percent, while OSU’s has increased about 5 percent.

The UO’s Thompson contends that the raw Oregon high school graduate numbers are somewhat misleading because the percentage of high school graduates who have taken the SAT or ACT college admissions tests has decreased in the same time period. In Oregon’s class of 2017, only 43 percent of high school graduates had taken one of those tests, indicating a smaller pool of potential college applicants.

Still, Thompson said he isn’t happy with the decline in in-state UO students. Neither is UO President Schill. “Over the past several years, we’ve had a number of high-profile challenges that have been particularly highlighted in-state,” Schill said, alluding to negative news stories about the UO that he declined to list. “That has made it more difficult for us to recruit” Oregonians.

“That is not an excuse or a crutch,” Thompson said. “We need to do better.”

Long-term demographic trends suggest that Oregon’s high school graduating classes are unlikely to grow significantly during the next decade, hovering between 35,000 and 38,000 graduates a year, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a collaborative funded by universities.

That’s a key reason the UO’s long-term financial plan shows the entire growth of the undergradute student body — an additional 3,000 students on campus by 2025 — being out-of-state students.

But, UO leaders insist, that projection doesn’t mean that they won’t “aggressively” recruit in-state students, too.

“It’s becoming more and more challenging to enroll Oregonians,” Schill said. “More out-of-state schools are recruiting in Oregon. Kids here have more and more options.”

But, he added, “we’ve got to increase the size of the college-ready pool (of Oregon high school graduates). And the number of students in that pool that are applying to the UO.”

Oregon’s lawmakers and higher education leaders so far generally have been unconcerned about the growing numbers of out-of-state students at Oregon’s public universities.

In years long past, the state steadily cut public money it was sending to higher education, and state leaders realize that out-of-state students have helped to hold down tuition increases for Oregonians and keep public universities afloat.

But starting in 2013, the Legislature has increased state university funding in each of its two-year budgets.

While universities “are clawing out of what was a pretty deep (funding) hole” after the 2008 recession, “recent additional levels of state investment are matched with additional expectations around their service to Oregonians,” said Ben Cannon, Oregon’s state higher education chief.

Cannon said the number of out-of-state students at Oregon’s public universities is almost irrelevant, so long as those institutions can show they’re improving access to higher education for in-state residents.

“I’m not certain that those modest (enrollment) declines (of in-state students) at PSU and UO in fact reflect diminished access,” he said. “But it gives us pause.”

One metric state higher education officials examine is the percentage of Oregon university students graduating within six years, Cannon said. During the past five years, the UO’s six-year resident graduation rate has climbed from 73 percent to 78 percent. OSU and PSU have seen increases, too.

Cannon said another key data point is the proportion of in-state high school graduates who actually enroll every year in any Oregon public community college or university. “We’ll be expecting to see pretty broad growth in that (number) year-over-year,” he said. “And if we saw a significant decline at an institution like the University of Oregon, that would a cause for concern.”

Stephen Burd of New America, a nonpartisan higher education think tank in Washington, D.C., has written papers criticizing what he calls the “out-of-state student arms race.”

Eventually, he said, any push to significantly expand out-of-state enrollment will hurt in-state students. It’s a question of when that tipping point is reached.

One often overlooked component of those pushes, Burd argued, is that admitting more nonresident students means public universities don’t need to seek out and enroll low-income, in-state students who might not otherwise attend college.

A national study called The Equality of Opportunity Project found that the UO saw a small decrease in students from families in the bottom 60 percent income brackets between the classes of 2002 and 2013. The percentage from the top 10 percent, meanwhile, grew by 8 percent.

“There’s nothing to stop these schools from going further and further in the direction of not really being state schools anymore,” Burd said. “The state helped to build your school and supported you for years.

“These are schools that have helped people move into the middle class,” he added. “This trend (of growing nonresident student populations) reinforces a tiered system of higher education.”

Earlier in his career, Thompson, the UO’s admissions chief since 2010 and a native Oregonian, worked in a similar position at the University of Alabama. He was there when the university became one of the first public colleges in the country to start aggressively recruiting out-of-state students in the early 2000s.

Alabama hasn’t slowed down: Today, it has at least 30 full-time recruiters around the country, and in-state students make up only 43 percent of its undergraduate body.

Thompson said he recognizes the shortcomings of a system in which public universities across the country “begin to compete for each others’ in-state students to try to get them as nonresidents.”

“It is, in my opinion, the big public policy issue in education today,” Thompson said. “If you were to step back and look at that from a macro-public policy standpoint, I don’t think that it’s the solution you would choose.

“But the genie is out of the bottle on that deal.”


Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com