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A New Look at In-State ‘Advantage’

Budget cuts have led many public universities to enroll more higher-paying students from other states, eroding the traditional boundaries of recruitment. As we reported last year, for instance, Arizona State University enrolled more freshmen from California than did six of California State University’s campuses.

How far can a state university’s mission bend before it breaks? How are all those applicants from other states—and from overseas—affecting in-state applicants’ chances of being admitted? Parents, legislators, and admissions officers are asking such questions, and researchers are asking, too.

In a new brief published on Monday by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington at Bothell, two researchers describe their analysis of recent admissions data from the University of Washington’s main campus, in Seattle. They conclude that in-state students have lost their traditional “edge” over out-of-state applicants, and may have been “at a disadvantage” in 2011.

Such generalizations are tricky, however. At selective colleges, who gets in and why are questions that one cannot easily answer on a grid. And the answers can be downright iffy if you’re comparing one large subset of applicants to another.

That is especially true when you’re talking about institutions, like Washington, where admissions officers weigh many factors beyond grades and standardized-tests scores in their “holistic” review of each applicant. Although the researchers acknowledge that Washington conducts holistic reviews of students, they base their conclusions on an analysis of grade-point averages and SAT scores earned by students who were—and those who were not—admitted. Those factors were just part of the story.

Amid sharp state budget cuts two years ago, it’s true that the university reduced its admissions target for residents by 150 students while increasing its out-of-state target by the same number (for a class of about 6,000 students). In 2011 the acceptance rate for in-state applicants fell to 59 percent, from 62 percent the year before. The proportion of in-state students in the class fell to 66 percent, from 73 percent.

Those changes have been reversed, however. The state has given the university more flexibility to manage tuition during the recession, and it now requires that the university’s incoming freshman classes include at least 4,000 in-state students.

This fall the university welcomed 4,044 in-state students and 982 out-of-state students; in 2010 it enrolled 4,017 in-state students and 961 out-of-state students. Over that time, the number of in-state applicants decreased by about 400, while the number of out-of-state applicants increased by nearly 1,300.

The most striking change? The increase in international students: This fall the university enrolled 1,023 of them, compared with just 564 in 2010. Although the researchers set aside international students for their study, the most compelling story here surely has less to do with students from Oregon than with those from China.

By all means, the new brief contains some interesting data, but it’s hard to see how in-state students are losing their “edge” to out-of-state students at Washington. As of 2012, the authors conclude, “residents do not appear to have much advantage in gaining admission to the [university], as many in the state believe they should have, but are not at a disadvantage either.”

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