Destination sunshine: South's colleges steal students


Published: Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

FACT - New Jersey is the perennial loser in the student migration wars: more of its residents leave the state to go to college than anywhere else in the country. On the other end of the spectrum, so many students have decided that sunshine, mosquitoes and the Marlins are the essential elements of the college experience that Florida is the state with the highest "net migration" (the number who enter minus the number who leave).

FACT - The swelling population of 18-year-olds -- members of the demographic behemoth known as the echo boom, offspring of the baby boomers -- is expected to peak in 2009, when the largest group of high school seniors in the nation's history, 3.2 million, are to graduate. While a slow descent is projected to follow, the growing value of a college degree means record high enrollments every year until 2015, according to a June report from the United States Department of Education.

FACT - College-age populations of the Midwest and Northeast are shrinking, while those in the South and West are rising. States with large immigrant populations, like Florida and Arizona, are expected to see the most growth in the college-age pipeline.

For anxious parents mulling their child's educational options, these are not so much interesting statistics mirroring larger demographic trends as tarot cards portending where the competition - and opportunity - rests in the application process.

The most selective private colleges have become phenomenally so. Flagship public campuses are increasingly difficult to penetrate. But there are hidden gems around the nation, higher learning institutions cached in states where population growth is stagnant or dwindling.

"Migration depends on supply and demand," says David A. Longanecker, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, based in Boulder, Colo. "You will see substantial migration into Sun Belt states because there is capacity there." Some states, though, "are growing so large they will need to force students out."

Consider Florida, whose overall population has doubled since 1980. With more than 57,000 students, Miami Dade College is the country's largest degree-granting institution, after the University of Phoenix Online. Enrollment in the state university system has increased by more than 80,000 in 10 years, and three of its 11 campuses have student bodies exceeding 40,000. The University of Florida enrolls 49,725 students, and admits roughly half its applicants.

"We had about 12,000 applications from children of alumni alone, and we only have space for 6,600" freshmen, says Janie Fouke, the provost. "So you have to turn them away, and they are flabbergasted. We have to get our message clear to help people understand that it is not going to be a slam dunk to getting people in here."

Even backup choices are safety schools no longer, as top students rejected by top schools squeeze out B students. The "slightly lower-tier flagship public land-grant school that your average solid high school student in each state could have banked on, well, those days are gone," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

So what is the strategy for college-bound students over the next several years?

In theory, it is to apply to colleges in states losing young people, like Vermont, Maine or the Dakotas.

"In states with low capacity, look for places with tuition benefits like the ones the state provides," Longanecker says. "North Dakota will give you a hell of a deal. My guess is in the future, there will be some pretty good deals in Midwestern universities."

Students who, in less competitive times, would have been shoo-ins for the nation's most elite colleges, may want to research which universities have raised their academic profiles.

"The University of Oklahoma is a classic example," Longanecker says. "Many students never used to consider it. Now it has the largest share of National Merit Scholars in the country. There are other just amazing finds. At Montana State University, the students who go there have a heck of a deal. It is a great school, in a beautiful location, with faculty that is unbelievably dedicated, and nonresident tuition is below most private colleges."

In sheer numbers, New York's array of coveted universities attracts the most students from other states, followed by California and Pennsylvania, according to a March report from the Education Department showing the comings and goings of first-time degree- and certificate-seeking students for fall 2004.

Wisconsin and Ohio, deep in the Rust Belt, are now exporting more students than they import.

Where students choose to attend is traditionally seen as a barometer of a state's higher-education appeal. But the picture is far more nuanced. Lack of capacity (New Jersey) and soaring tuition (California) will stem an influx of out-of-state students. Other states (Georgia) try to keep their residents at home by offering juicy tuition incentives to well-performing high school graduates.

"If your mind-set is very European, it is a form of macro-econ planning, the thinking being that education matters so much to the welfare of the state so you induce people to stay," Nassirian says. "Regrettably, many states have decided to go this route."

Regrettably, he means, because "these programs are designed to go to higher-achieving, often less-needy students."

"This has the effect of spending public dollars on students who would have gone to college anyway, only to keep them in state," he says.

One high school graduate in five who goes directly to college leaves his home state to do so, and studies show that most of these students come from affluent families.

"There is all this hue and cry about affordability," says Robert Zemsky, chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "But if you look at where students choose to enroll, it is almost always the higher-priced option."

"If kids were smart," he says, "they would look at the inverse of the population chart. But that is generally not how students and parents behave. They look at where other people go."

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