It took Hermelindo Penaloza 35 hours to drive his little car from Santa Ana, Calif., to South Dakota State University in Brookings. He transferred in as a junior, sight unseen, after hearing a recruiting pitch at his community college. The main draw: a price he can afford.
"I know that the weather's bad and I'm not used to this kind of weather, but I'm willing to move anywhere I can to continue my education," he says in a phone interview.
It wouldn't have occurred to him to go to South Dakota, however, if the school hadn't set up ties with his community college a few years ago in an effort to tap into California's huge wave of young people. About 12 Santa Ana students come each semester, paying 150 percent of the South Dakota resident rate.
Universities in states with aging populations are increasingly eyeing students in the West and the South, hoping to lure them inland for higher education - or, even better, to stay.
"Unless we can do something to alter the demographic destiny of a lot of these Midwestern states, there's going to be a legacy of fewer people to pay higher taxes for government services," says David Olien, senior vice president for administration of the University of Wisconsin system.
At its meeting later this month, the 10-state Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) will discuss student migration patterns and tuition incentives. There's no formal proposal yet to target states like California, says the group's president, Larry Isaak, but it's one approach that campuses might consider as they face a growing urgency to meet state workforce needs.
One of Wisconsin's public campuses was built in the 1960s for 11,000 students but draws just 5,000 today. So it's starting to recruit engineering students from states close to home - Illinois and Iowa.
By setting a tuition rate that's lower than the normal out-of-state charge, but still higher than the in-state rate, it expects to attract 2,000 new students, and 8 out of 10 are projected to take jobs in Wisconsin afterward.
Tuition breaks for Californians, however, might be harder to sell politically. "The states are very provincial about higher education," says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif. "They don't want to subsidize [undergraduate students] who don't pay taxes in the state."
That's why Mr. Olien says there are three nonnegotiables before Wisconsin would participate in any such initiative: The out-of-state students would fill extra slots, not displace Wisconsinites; the tuition would still be high enough to subsidize residents; and it would focus on enrollment in areas of study that meet Wisconsin employers' needs.
"We're not interested in alleviating the state of California's problems - we would have to come out ahead," he says.
One model for coming out ahead is Murray State University in Kentucky, which for the past seven years has offered incentive grants to students from nearby states such as Ohio and Illinois. The students pay their own in-state rate, but that brings in nearly double what Kentucky students pay.
It's a great deal for Kentucky, says Murray State's president, King Alexander.
A state invests about $100,000 into a child's K-12 education, but if that student comes to Kentucky for college, he or she will spend about $8,000 a year in the state. More than 20 percent of out-of-state students stay after graduation.
"It makes perfect economic sense to do what [we] can to rob other states of their economic investments," Mr. Alexander - an economist - says with a laugh. "I can say that because Kentucky had been robbed for two or three decades, prior to the 1990s, of its best and brightest. The issue of human-capital migration is going to be increasingly competitive."
Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and members of the European Union already put a high premium on migration to meet labor-force needs, he says, so it's logical that the next step in the US is for states like his to look as far as California for students.
But how many Californians, or Texans or Floridians for that matter, would really be interested in moving inland for their education? Financial incentives - tuition breaks and the lower cost of living - could indeed make Midwestern universities attractive, Mr. Callan says.
California would have to add hundreds of thousands of college slots this decade to keep its enrollment rates the same, an unlikely scenario, given the budget constraints.
With this growing competition, Callan says, "students who might have gone to one of the University of California campuses a decade ago might not be able to get in now.... So many might prefer a four-year college in another state than to start at a community college in California."
South Dakota State benefits from the dollars and the diversity, and it is considering expanding its outreach to other California schools, says Marysz Rames, dean of student affairs. "It's win-win for the students in California and for us."
Two months into his studies, Mr. Penaloza says he'd encourage California beach-dwellers to check out the Great Plains, though he does hope to go back to California for law school once he earns his BA in English. True, he hasn't experienced the winter yet, but he's enjoying how "completely different" it is from southern California.
"The people are really nice... Over there it's a big city - everybody's running. Here, it's more like real people."