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Alabama has invested heavily to lure students like Ms. Zavilowitz, who does not qualify for federal financial aid. The university is spending $100.6 million in merit aid, up from $8.3 million a decade ago and more than twice what it allocates to students with financial need. It also has hired an army of recruiters to put Bama on college lists of full-paying students who, a few years ago, might not have looked its way.
The University of Alabama is the fastest-growing flagship in the country. Enrollment hit 37,665 this fall, nearly a 58 percent increase over 2006. As critical as the student body jump: the kind of student the university is attracting. The average G.P.A. of entering freshmen is 3.66, up from 3.4 a decade ago, and the top quarter scored at least a 31 on the ACT, up from 27.
Each year, about 18 percent of freshmen leave their home state for college in another. They tend to be the best prepared academically and most able to pay, said Thomas G. Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, who tracks this data. Achieving students are likely to be bound for successful lives, enhancing their alma mater’s status and, the hope is, filling its coffers with donations. Schools want them.
Merit aid given to achievers has a magnetic effect. “If we recruit five students from a high school, we will get 10 students the next year and they may not all be scholarship students,” said Stuart R. Bell, president of the University of Alabama.
Instead of layoffs and cuts, some public universities facing budget challenges are following this blueprint for survival: higher charges to students, and more of them. Nowadays, the real money comes from tuition and fees. The average for four-year public colleges rose 81 percent in constant dollars between 2000 and 2014. At Alabama, tuition and fees have about doubled in the last decade, to $10,470 for residents and to $26,950 for nonresidents.
Even when it awards full-tuition scholarships, the university makes money — on dorm rooms and meal plans, books, football tickets, hoodies and school spirit items like the giant Bama banner Ms. Zavilowitz and her roommates bought for the blank wall in the suite’s common area. All told, these extras and essentials brought in $173 million last year — on top of $633 million in tuition and fees, up from $135 million in 2005.
“I hate very much to use this analogy, but it’s like running a business,” Dr. Whitaker said.
The impact of this strategy is visible on campus, where pristine brick Greek Revival buildings seem like toy models slipped from boxes and set on green plots amid curvilinear streets of fresh black asphalt. In the past decade, the university has added 64 buildings, including an engineering research quad with labs for testing combustion engines and large-scale structures (a “shake table” simulates earthquakes).
“The university must have campus facilities that are competitive to meet student enrollment goals,” according to the 2014-15 financial statement. Gleaming new labs await researchers, and there are plans to expand graduate programs and hire 300 to 400 new faculty members in the next five years. Around Tuscaloosa are cranes, fenced-off construction zones and new apartments (8,270 additional beds since 2012). The parking lots are license-plate bingo heaven.
Ambition has its costs. As colleges adopt enrollment management strategies like aggressive recruiting and merit aid, the traditional role of public colleges is changing, said Stephen Burd, senior policy analyst at the think tank New America. This is leaving state residents and lower-income students with “no four-year schools where they can go in an affordable way,” he said. “There is less aid for low-income students and there are fewer seats” as colleges favor those who already have an advantage.
Alabamians are now just 43 percent of the student body. On a campus bus tour crowded with out-of-state students and parents, a senior in a red dress, black heels and pearls (a guide uniform) offered that fact as a selling point.
Public higher education is facing an identity crisis in mission and modus operandi. Nearly 30 years ago, legislative appropriations provided 59 percent of core revenues at public four-year colleges. In 2013, the latest year available, states covered 27 percent on average, according to Mr. Mortenson’s calculations. Funding is on track to reach zero in less than 20 years in some states and as soon as six in Colorado and nine in Alaska.
“What happens when states stop funding higher education altogether?” he asked. Politicians have made college affordability a talking point, but education experts like Mr. Mortenson doubt that election-year proposals will reverse the trend, at least any time soon.
Overall enrollments have been dropping since 2010. That has all but the nation’s top schools battling for students. Alabama may be a standout example, but across the country university flagships and even regional campuses once focused on serving nearby counties are extending their reach. Arizona State University, Oregon State University and Utah State University have amped up online programs (Starbucks reimburses employee tuition for A.S.U. Online degrees), expanded their campuses, are building or buying satellite campuses and, in the process, significantly raising enrollments.
When states suffer budget woes, others feast. “Stress in California,” said Kent Hopkins, vice president of enrollment management at A.S.U., “is definitely an advantage as we talk to California students and their parents.” Enrollments from California are up 46 percent in six years. It might be ugly, but once-staid public universities “are doing what private colleges have done for a long time,” said Kevin W. Crockett, president of enrollment management at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a higher education consulting firm. They are asking, “What is the appropriate price point for students to cross state lines?”
Miami University of Ohio got on board for fall 2010, announcing a scholarship “guarantee” with an ACT of 26 and a 3.7 G.P.A. The university had fallen “several hundred” short of the freshman goal, said Susan K. Schaurer, assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of admission. “Our mantra had been to accomplish, but do so humbly and quietly,” she said. “When you are thrust into an incredibly competitive higher education landscape, you have to shift that thinking.”
Over the next 18 months, Miami hired two national recruiters and bought contact information from the College Board and ACT for students around the country instead of tapping the usual feeder schools. With its classical arches, tranquil courtyards and liberal arts curriculum, it is often mistaken for a private college, which it is capitalizing on, reaching out to families “seeking that private school experience,” Ms. Schaurer said. Applications are up 62 percent since 2010; two-thirds now come from out of state. Last year, for example, 41 students applied from Greenwich High School in Connecticut and 33 from Mira Costa High School in California.
With its success in drawing more students, Miami has walked back on merit aid; there are still scholarships, but the guarantee is gone and, as of this fall, the qualifying ACT score is higher. These days, Ms. Schaurer said, “a student with a 26 ACT is really below average.” Miami now has seven recruiters.
The University of South Carolina has 20. Since it hired someone to recruit in Massachusetts, applicants from that state have jumped, from 335 in 2010 to 881 last year, and enrollments have nearly tripled, from 57 to 156; Massachusetts now ranks eighth as a source of out-of-staters to the Columbia, S.C., campus. Over all, applications from out-of-state students are now double those of residents.
Recruiters are shaking up college conversations, said Paul C. Kaser, a counselor at the Bergen County Academies, a public magnet school in New Jersey where nearly half the seniors are National Merit Scholars, finalists, semifinalists or commended students, and parents and students meet counselors with Excel spreadsheets in hand. “There might be an old stereotype of public universities not caring and just looking at numbers,” he said, but their recruiters “come to our school to be on panels, to host luncheons.” They respond to emails within hours. As a result, students are now at universities that “were not even on our radar five years ago.” When he first mentioned Alabama four years ago, he recalled, “the parents said, ‘Alabama!?’ I said, ‘Hear me out.’”
One student starts a pipeline. Five graduates of the Academies are now there.Continue reading the main story