State colleges start border wars over tuition

To lure top prospects, public universities slash their prices for out-of- state students.

Schuyler Stephens is a college recruiter's dream.

He's president of his senior class at Christopher High School in Illinois. He's a four-year letterman in football, basketball, and baseball, as well as a member of the drama and science clubs. He ranks No. 8 in his class. And he hasn't missed a day of school since second grade.

It's no surprise, then, that Murray State University is desperate to attract Schuyler and students like him. What is perhaps surprising, though, is how far this public university in Kentucky is willing to go to get a kid from another state.

This summer, Murray State is starting what amounts to a tuition border war to lure students from neighboring states. For co-eds from Illinois, Tennessee, and Missouri, it will match the price of the in-state competition.

As states clamor to secure the best students, more states from Florida to South Dakota are offering out-of-state students substantial tuition breaks.

Some critics deride the trend as a misuse of state subsidies. But others see these students as tomorrow's workers, and with today's economy founded on education and high-tech know-how, many state and education officials are increasingly seeing these brightest students as crucial to future prosperity.

"If there is anywhere this sort of trend is going to continue to develop, it's going to be in the Midwest," says Travis Reindl of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "It's about demographics. A number of Plains States are, in the immediate term, going to be looking at some slowing and slumping enrollment.

"For particular institutions, there is going to be a real challenge to maintain and grow an enrollment base over the next five to 10 years," he says.

A case in point is South Dakota. It has already reached an agreement with Minnesota that allows students from either state to attend the other's public colleges at roughly the same cost as in-state students. But to the south and north, Nebraska and North Dakota are drawing away students with scholarship programs and reduced tuition rates.

So far the South Dakota Legislature has declined to offer a similar tuition discount.

An out-of-state subsidy?

Indeed, most state legislators find such programs to be problematic. They don't want to back tuition-reduction programs that could be construed by voters as giving away state subsidies. But without the ability to offer such programs, state colleges aren't meeting their recruiting goals.

The quandary was evident in a dust-up that occurred along the Texas-Louisiana border two years ago. The Texas Legislature agreed to a tuition-reduction plan for all public colleges and universities within 100 miles of the Lone Star state's border. (The regular tuition rate for out-of state students is nearly 600 percent more than the in-state rate. For out-of-state students in the 100-mile zone, the reduced rate is 175 percent.)

Across the Sabine River at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., officials went to the state legislators, asking for a similar deal. They needed it to compete with Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

They were refused.

"These sorts of programs come about because seats are empty and they need to be filled," says Mr. Reindl. "Its just like in a retail business. If you're trying to move the merchandise, a small profit is better than no profit.

"In the college world, trying to support your institutional base with some money, versus leaving that seat empty, is something that weighs pretty heavily for both the college presidents and the legislators," he adds.

Although tuition border wars may create some unhealthy interstate rivalry, dueling discounts don't have to be confrontational, say some.

This fall, Florida allowed state universities in the northern part of the state to offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students living within 50 miles of the border.

"It was vital we have this," says Western Florida President Morris Marx. "We have more fish in our service area than people."

But his university never really opposed an Alabama tuition discount because a rival university there has a strong medical program his university doesn't have. It would not have served the interests of Florida students to block access to such a program, Dr. Marx says.

Education 'free-trade zones'

Tuition discounting can spur healthy competition by creating, in effect, an educational free-trade zone. "If a student has a choice between institution X and institution Y for essentially the same tuition," says Mr. Reindl, "then each of those institutions will be looking to offer something the other can't."

That motivates colleges and universities to focus on and excel at what they do best, he adds.

Meanwhile, Illinois high school senior Schuyler, who wants to pursue a history and communications double major, is weighing his options. The University of Illinois could cost as much as $12,000 a year, while Murray State would cost only $7,000.

"I want to go to the school that's right for me," he says. "But money will have a lot to do with the final decision. That's just the way it is."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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