Monday, November 23, 2009

The Public University Option

Financial safeties, or as I prefer to call them, schools that provide good “value,” are now a regular fixture on college lists, having become nearly as commonplace as the academic safeties, or colleges where acceptance is highly likely. Like the academic “likelies,” schools perceived to offer better economic value are those on the list which enable both parents and students to sleep better at night. Typically these are your state universities and private colleges known to give generous merit and need-based aid, the latter should you qualify.

If you are seeking practical financial choices, you probably want to also consider public universities outside your home state. Believe it or not, many of these institutions provide a value option, even with the higher non-resident tuition. There are some exceptions to this, most notably University of Michigan and schools in the University of California system which are priced more like private universities for out-of-state students. However, cost of attendance for non-residents at many state colleges can still be several thousand dollars lower than the private school alternative.

The desire to maintain quality public education in the face of budget cuts is leading some public universities to look beyond their borders and expand enrollment to non-residents as one means to address a funding gap. The University of Massachusetts recently announced that it will increase out-of-state enrollment from 20% to 30% over the next decade. Rutgers plans to raise enrollment of students outside New Jersey from 10% to 25%, while the University of Colorado is talking about removing state caps altogether. All three offer a competitive cost option to out-of-state students. The University of Minnesota, in an effort to grow its non-resident enrollment, has set the out-of-state tuition at only $4,000 higher per year than for residents. You will find a comparison chart with the costs of many state universities in the November 1, 2009 Education Life section of the New York Times and can access it at Keep in mind that the amounts shown only include tuition and fees, and not the full cost of attendance. To better gauge what you will pay it is best to go to the individual school’s website.

Value must, of course, be considered in the context of selectivity. For example, schools such as the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and the University of Florida have low caps on out-of-state enrollment. So while the cost of attendance is a relative bargain ($36,000 for non-residents at UNC, $34,000 at University of Florida), the admission standards are that much tougher for out-of-state students. Nevertheless, for the strong candidate who seeks the large research university environment, these are worth considering.

Now that I have argued the value in looking beyond your own state to other public universities, let me throw in a few caveats. It is no secret that states across the country are trying to close budget gaps, which has translated to reduced funding for colleges, accompanied by talk of raising tuition. Just last week, the University of California’s Board of Regents approved a whopping 32% increase in fees (tuition) for residents, on top of already higher than average public education costs. Even such a hefty increase will not fully address the system’s deep fiscal problems. My point is that one must evaluate the financial health of state institutions as carefully as one scrutinizes the fiscal state of private colleges, perhaps even more so. Budget cuts have led to staff and class schedule reductions. The impact of this may mean the difference between graduating in four years and needing more time just to schedule all the classes required to complete a major. Some state universities have weathered the financial crisis more successfully due to recent trends towards privatization, meaning they have tapped non-government sources and moved away from reliance on state funding. Inquire about the percentage of the operating budget that is funded by private monies. Greater reliance on state funding may mean higher risk of cutbacks in staff, departments and programs if budget shortfalls persist.

Are states likely to raise tuition on out-of-state students more rapidly than for residents in future years? While public education tuition increases are a potentially sensitive political issue, past experience suggests that out-of-state students will not bear the brunt of tuition hikes. This may even be more true today than in prior years, as states recognize the need to attract non-residents who are the ones they can count on to pay the higher freight.