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Out-of-State Students: Boo! Out-of-State Dollars: Yay!

In their increasingly desperate search for messages that might win them some votes in ever-more Democratic northern Virginia, Republicans think they've hit paydirt with an appeal to parents stressed out about getting their kids into the state's universities.

Over the past decade, out-of-state students have been given an ever-increasing portion of the seats at the University of Virginia, George Mason University and the commonwealth's other major colleges. Now here's a red-meat issue politicians can grab hold of: Force the schools to reserve more of their places for genuine Virginians and just watch the votes of grateful citizens roll in.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell says the percentage of out-of-staters must come down. (As the campaign has progressed, McDonnell has clarified his position to say that he wants to increase the overall number of seats for students at state colleges, rather than rationing places to in-state or out-of-state students. But he's made no commitment to spending more state money on public colleges.)

McDonnell's Democratic opponents say that more money is the only solution that will enable those schools to admit more Virginians. Slapping tighter quotas on out-of-state kids won't work. As candidate Brian Moran has said, "The out-of-state kids help keep the cost of in-state tuition down."

Exactly right, says Alan Merten, president of George Mason University and a vocal defender of both the intellectual good and the financial stability that come with adding out-of-state students.

Merten stopped by the other day to express the frustration that university presidents all around Virginia feel as they see the mix of students on their campuses morph into a political issue.

In theory, Virginia's colleges are independent of the political system, governed by boards that include some state-appointed members, but otherwise free to set their own policies. But in fact, legislators often tell the schools that hey, you're free to set your own tuition levels and policies, but if you don't do what we want, we're going to step in and restrict how you spend your money.

A decade ago, Merten says, "for every $1 we raised in tuition, we had $2 in state money." Today, for every dollar the colleges draw in tuition, they receive only 75 cents in state support. That enormous shift of the funding burden onto tuition has given Virginia colleges no choice but to jack up the number of out-of-state students they admit, because out-of-staters pay dramatically more in tuition. At Mason, for example, in-state undergraduates pay $7,500 a year, whereas out-of-staters pay $22,500 a year.

"So when I admit two students who look a lot alike and one comes from Alexandria, Va., and the other from Alexandria, Egypt, that $22,000 check is subsidizing the in-state student," Merten says.

At Mason, out-of-state students have soared from 10 percent of the population to 24 percent in the past decade, in part because the school's academic reputation has improved, in part because the basketball team's Cinderella year in the NCAA Final Four gave Mason a publicity bonanza, and in part because the school just plain needs the money.

The reason this decade-long transformation has become a political hot potato just in the past couple of years is that the state kept cutting back on spending increases for higher education, which meant major state universities slowed their building programs and stopped adding new seats for students. If the total number of students flattens out and the percentage of out-of-state students keeps rising, you do the math--Virginia families feel squeezed because they are being squeezed.

"What has to be decided in Virginia is are we going to have more high school graduates going to four-year colleges?" Merten asks. "And if so, where are they going to go?"

Some schools don't want to grow--the University of Virginia and William & Mary want to maintain their size to protect their reputations and intimacy of atmosphere. But Mason aspires to become what Merten calls the Ohio State of Virginia--a campus serving some 40,000-plus students, up from its current size of 31,000 students.

To get there, it will need significantly more state support. All four gubernatorial candidates say they want to move more kids into college. Virginia ranks 25th in the nation in high school graduates going on to college, Merten says. "We're just not doing that well in that regard."

But no candidate has committed to adding to the state universities' capacity using state dollars. "They're more interested in being able to tell their constituents that they tried to control the number of out-of-state students than in actually making the changes that would allow us to take more in-state students," Merten says. "Putting caps on tuition and putting caps on out-of-state students--it doesn't take much analysis to see that that doesn't work."

Sadly, it's not analysis that interests those politicians who see a reservoir of votes in the frustration so many parents feel about their kids not getting into their own state's colleges. What those politicians aren't counting on is that many voters have already figured this out: Scapegoating out-of-state kids won't solve anything. Only real support to improve and expand public colleges will.

By Marc Fisher |  May 4, 2009; 8:28 AM ET  | Category:  Politics , Schools , Virginia
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Maybe if GMU was a fiscally responsible it could have kept costs in check. The same with UVA, Tech and W&M. VA college presidents allowed their costs to increase at rates 200 to 500% of the cost of inflation with really nothing to show for it.

Problem with VA's colleges being quasi independent is the lack of any controls on spending increases.

Merten needs to go since he has damaged GMU's rep.

Posted by: sheepherder | May 4, 2009 9:22 AM

Exactly, sheepherder. The column's answer to the issue is to keep pulling in more out-of-staters to feed the ever-increasing costs without dealing with the cost side of the issue...and label people who question that as political opportunists or "scapegoaters".

Posted by: capsfan77 | May 4, 2009 10:23 AM

"and label people who question that as political opportunists or "scapegoaters"."

Who is raising this question? McDonnell sure isn't. He's pointing at out-of-state students and saying they're the problem.

That's the very definition of polticially opportunistic scapegoating.

"Our state schools need to keep their costs in check!" is not a rallying cry...

"Dirty Out of State Kids took YOUR Kids' spots and I will stop that!" indeed is.

Posted by: VTDuffman | May 4, 2009 10:29 AM

What good does a slightly lower cost do if we are not helping the students from VA. I know Marc all but despises VA, but he should put aside his dislike for the conservative part of the state on this topic.

Its even more important to have VA take care of VA residents first in these harder times. If students can't go in state because the leaders want the money from out of state students, then students who are from VA will be forced to go out of state where they pay a lot more.

Posted by: Natstural | May 4, 2009 10:49 AM

"That enormous shift of the funding burden onto tuition has given Virginia colleges no choice but to jack up the number of out-of-state students they admit."

This is untrue. They could take steps to reduce their expenses, like the rest of the world. The notion that colleges are entitled to continue raising rates far in excess of inflation is pernicious.

Posted by: tomtildrum | May 4, 2009 10:50 AM

If the point of this article was about how the Republicans are politicizing this issue, then it was poorly written. If it was intended to be an example of it, then it succeeded. I agree with the other posters who say we need to fix the cost of education. If we can do that, then maybe we won't have to worry about who is using it as a political issue.

Posted by: jsauri | May 4, 2009 11:57 AM

Fisher would rather see VA students forced to go out of state to college and pay higher tuition then jeopardize an out-of-state student's chances at admission in VA. He doesn't mind coming off as an idiot if he can get a jab in there at the GOP.

Posted by: realist2 | May 4, 2009 12:47 PM

Seems like the right wingers have missed the point on this one. it's not simply UVA, GMu or W&M that have not been fiscally responsible. virtually every college in this country has had comparable tuition increases during the same period. the issue is state funding went from $2 for every $1 of tuition to $0.75 for every dollar of tuition. Seems like the states adopted other priorities.

Posted by: oknow1 | May 4, 2009 2:18 PM

I don't understand why the schools don't raise the in-state tuition. The article sites in-state rates approx $7500 and out-of-state as about $22,500. If the rates changed to $12,500 and $22,500, then there would still be a perk for in-state residents, and they should be able to afford more in-state residents due to the $5K per head difference for in-state residents, which do number in the 10's of thousands. $5 may be drastic and they might be able to get away with a smaller increase, but the idea is that one way to get more in-state residents in at the same cost is to raise the cost of all in-state tuition. You can still have a perk for in-state residents, just not as big.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | May 4, 2009 3:57 PM

When Chap Petersen was running for the Democratic nomination for Lt. Gov. a few years back, he brought up what I thought was a good suggestion. How about a statue college/university in ... southwest Virginia, I think? It would increase the number of seats in Virginia college, and help the economy of the region.

Posted by: IrishRose | May 4, 2009 6:33 PM

A few things to offer:

IrishRose -
Are we not counting Virginia Tech or Radford as being situated in SW VA? Also, what about UVA-Wise? Is there even local support in SW VA for a new 4-year University? That part of the state is so financially strapped already, how much can they fund it???? That is a HUGE question.

DadWannaBe -
That is like saying, if GM isn't making enough money, why don't they just raise the cost of their cars 75% to make more money? BECAUSE NO ONE WOULD BY THEM!!! If one college raises the price of In-State Tuition 75% in one year, who is going to even apply there?

tomtildrum/sheepherder -
The answer to your question as to why colleges don't just cut back costs was answered already, but just to make sure you understand, Universities like George Mason, Christopher Newport, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth are expanding at amazing rates because of the needs to accommodate more students and are receiving an incredibly reduced amount of money from the state! THAT IS WHY THEY ARE INCREASING TUITION WAY ABOVE THE RATE OF INFLATION. Colleges and Universities across the Commonwealth ARE cutting costs! Some are even cutting entire departments because of the state's unwillingness to properly fund them.

My personal opinion:
Universities NEED out of state and international students not just for the money. They need them for the DIVERSITY. The benefits of sitting in a classroom learning about earthquakes with someone who grew up in San Fransisco or about border control with a student from Miami or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with someone from the Middle East is INVALUABLE. Virginia, especially NoVA is very diverse already, but it's not enough.

Lastly, I had heard that there was something like a 33% max on out-of-state students already? I have heard most other states haves this as well for their public schools...

Posted by: boundlessambition | May 4, 2009 7:26 PM


How old are you? When did you graduate college? Lets see more students equal more revenue. Sorry bubba but GMU and et al have mismanaged their finances. There is no incentive at a state school or private college to manage cost and make sure programs are really needed as is any technology buy. They can just increase tuition. when was the last time a Va college was told no increase?
Please get over yourself.

Take the example of GWU high tuition cost equals quality! What a crock and then they give financial aid to everyone. No incentive to manage costs.

What VA needs to do is have each college have a real CFo from the real world to control costs.

And forget about diversity VA tax payers come first at VA schools. And non US students come last. And I am sorry VA colleges need to verify that all students are US citizens or here legally. VA colleges must not allow illegal immigrants to attend. And if any student who is a resident alien or foreign student violates the law then turn them into ICE/DHS immediately and kick them out of school. Where is Dean wormer when you need them.

And lets hope the current recession makes NOVA less diverse.

Posted by: sheepherder | May 4, 2009 8:42 PM


GWU is private, your point is moot.

The rest of your post is just weird and angry.

Posted by: VTDuffman | May 5, 2009 10:40 AM


Do you have any evidence that universities are not managing their costs? Do you have examples of inflated expenses that you think should be cut?

If you examine the salaries of university employees, I think you will find that they are not very high. These are published every year for public schools. When you see professors with high salaries, you should know that they are funded by research grants that they apply for and receive from non-university sources.

What areas do you think universities should trim to reduce cost?

Posted by: jayef | May 5, 2009 10:50 AM

It's easy to say that colleges should just cut costs--but what costs? Building and grounds maintenance? Which faculty should they fire? Which departments should they cut? Should they reduce financial aid to needy students? Perhaps they should cut their campus police, or their science labs, or their library collections. Colleges used to end up with $2 for every $1 they charged. Now they end up with 75 cents. But the demand for colleges is growing, not shrinking, which requires adding more dorms, more classrooms, and more teachers--not fewer. The problem is that the state wants colleges to maintain their quality but doesn't want to provide the necessary funds. The colleges can only cut so much without compromising their fundamental mission.

Posted by: Katya2 | May 5, 2009 11:35 AM

Amazing number of posters here who are familiar with the specifics of the State Universities monthly budgets and expenditures. We're lucky to have you...

Posted by: JkR- | May 5, 2009 1:04 PM

Sheepherder - I could not have stated the situation any better than you did. Colleges like the UAW and GM have to face reality and get truly competitive. For example, the days of charging sky high prices for text books has to end. But, for now as a tax payer I "feel squeezed because I am being squeezed"

Posted by: collocation1 | May 5, 2009 3:52 PM

When the tuition hikes out pace inflation you are not controlling your costs especially if the size of student body is increasing.

Lets cut the math department and get rid a math classes for liberal arts majors and others.

GMU, W&M, UVA etc shouldn't offer remedial classes etc. Leave that to the community colleges. Get rid of all ESL classes too. Use students for office help more extensively. Out source. Get rid of duplicate programs at the schools.

VT Duffman I know GWU is private and its a great example of the stupidity of college presidents. Jack the tuition sky high so parents believe your school is one of the best. Then offer financial aid to 90% or more of the students to offset the cost. Now wouldn't it make more sense to lower the tuition down to the real cost and use to endowment money to send kids from Appalachia and inner city to GWU! Nah they want more middle and upper middle class kids.

Back in 1978 I purchased a new VW Rabbit for $5k and tuition at GMU was about $500 a semester full time. You can purchase a 09 Rabbit with the same equipment today for around $16k but tuition a semester at GMU is now almost $3800. Even a liberal arts major like me can see that GMU has not kept costs under control.

Sorry not right wing bubba. GMU, Va Tech, UVA, JMU, W&M etc have no incentive to control costs. If Wal Mart ran GMU what the would the tuition be? No ran the university and it costs not its education programs?

ll that crap you learn in Econ doesn't apply in running a U! Oh and get rid of the bookstores. Amazon and Apple can fill the void. There is no reason for a bookstores etc.

Posted by: sheepherder | May 5, 2009 7:57 PM

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