Why it’s harder to get into the flagship State U.

By Suzanne Shaffer

Living in Texas, you are either an Aggie or a Longhorn. Texas A&M and the University of Texas are our flagship state universities and the battle lines are clearly drawn.

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For Texas high school students, these are coveted college possibilities. For in-state residents, these state-funded universities should be affordable and attainable. But, as both my daughter and son discovered, being admitted to these schools is not a guarantee, and quite often as difficult as getting into elite private colleges.

In the past, public flagship universities were sure things for average in-state students. When my husband applied to one, even though he had a below average GPA and course curriculum, his in-state residency guaranteed acceptance. That is no longer the case. Many larger state universities are becoming more competitive and barely attainable for even the best students.

A larger applicant pool

Years ago, a college degree was not the norm. If you went to college, you were special. It didn’t matter so much where you went, it just mattered that you graduated.

You’ve probably noticed that things have really changed. With so many students applying to and attending college now, colleges are able to re-evaluate their admissions criteria.

According to a U.S. News article citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more students are applying to college than ever before. Population growth is partially responsible for the increase, with baby boomers producing more college-aged children. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of 18 to 24-year-olds increased 13 percent from 27 million to over 30 million. Between 1980 and 2012, college enrollment of this age group increased from 26 percent to 41 percent.

With more students applying to college, the applicant pool is larger, creating more competition. It’s no secret that colleges love a large applicant pool, which has two advantages: a more diverse selection of applicants and an opportunity to show the ranking services their selectivity. More rejections mean a higher ranking.

The higher numbers of applicants can also be linked to the accessibility and use of the Common Application, which makes it easier for students to apply and to apply to a greater number of schools.

Students with average qualifications now compete with superior students. Even superior students are finding it difficult to compete with so many applicants on the same level. When this happens, colleges look for the exceptional student or a student whose application communicates a unique characteristic that colleges value like leadership, citizenship and academic rigor.

In January 2015, Governor Jerry Brown of California observed that the University of California appeared to have closed its doors to “normal” students. Inside Higher Ed reported Governor Brown’s comments, pointing out the average students of the past would not be offered admission today. Many of the students who were admitted previously went on to use the education they received to become outstanding citizens with extraordinary careers, such as Chief Justice Earl Warren who was not an exceptional high school student but was admitted to UC Berkeley.

Finally, the seats in these large flagship universities are more coveted than a decade ago. Parents concerned with ongoing economic uncertainty want to prepare their children for a competitive job market and view a degree from an elite institution as an asset and an edge when beginning the job hunt.

Money woes

State funding for most in-state universities has decreased. Years of state funding cuts means a larger portion of university budgets comes from tuition. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis:

559 public four-year colleges and universities showed that between the fall of 2008—the last year before school budgets were affected by the recession—and the fall of 2012, 54 schools decreased enrollment of freshman in-state students by 10% or more, while increasing enrollment of nonresident freshmen by 10% or more. An additional 35 showed swings of at least 5%.The phenomenon was most prevalent at flagship universities.

Colleges are looking outside their states to support rising operational costs. In an effort to find funding, these flagship universities are looking for applicants who would pay more for their education. These include applicants with the ability to pay the entire tuition, applicants from other states who will pay the higher cost of out-of-state tuition, and international applicants who are charged and can afford higher tuition.

Unfortunately, when colleges move beyond their own borders it affects in-state applicants. Most high school counselors are now steering students who can’t afford to pay away from flagship universities like the Universities of California, Michigan, Arizona and Texas. Previously in the state of Texas, the top 10 percent of every class were automatically accepted to its flagship universities. This is no longer the case; in 2014 the number was reduced to the top 7 percent. And according to the University of Texas’ website, “Even applications from students who are automatically admissible are subject to holistic review to determine the major to which the applicant will be admitted.”

Because they have so many applicants and applicants who are willing to pay to attend, many colleges only provide token merit scholarships or institutional aid and often offer no financial aid apart from student loans. This is called gapping: a college offers admission, but does not meet all of a student’s financial need after figuring the family’s EFC. Colleges use this tactic when they have a large applicant pool and have other students who are either exceptional or willing to pay. By gapping, the college is betting the student will decline admission.

In the fall of 2013, George Washington University shocked parents and students when they announced that top applicants who needed more financial support would shift from “admitted” to “waitlisted” when making the final decision. This announcement was viewed as a confirmation of a practice that had been long suspected—colleges factoring in an applicant’s ability to pay into the admissions decision. According to Forbes, if a public university sees an out-of-stater it likes and thinks can foot the whole bill, it will likely take the lead on making contact and see that student as a more favorable candidate.

These schools are charging higher prices because they can and because plenty of wealthy families are willing to pay for their student to attend. The colleges are more selective when it comes to admitting students who need aid. This change is also putting these flagship universities out of reach for the type of students who enrolled a decade ago: low-to-middle income average students.

Considering other options

Even though the landscape has changed within these flagship universities, some students will still be offered admission, as in the state of Texas example or as a National Merit finalist or semifinalist. However, if you evaluate other options and consider other state universities, in-state students can often find bargains at the institutions that are not on everyone’s popularity radar. These schools charge far less for tuition and still offer a quality education. The school your student attends may not be Texas A&M or the University of Arizona, but in today’s high priced college market a bargain is much better than bragging rights, and a degree that provides a career is much better than a name on a diploma.

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