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The Pros and Cons of Tuition Dependence for Public Colleges

San Francisco — As state support for higher education has plummeted, public colleges have had to look elsewhere for money. That shift has brought changes, both good and bad, said Bradley Barnes during a session here on Monday of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’ annual meeting.

Many public colleges act more like private ones in their pursuit of and reliance on tuition revenue, said Mr. Barnes, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. “You may not want to admit it,” he said, “but it’s happening.”

On the positive side, tuition can be a more reliable form of revenue than state support is, Mr. Barnes said. That can give colleges a little more stability.

But as public colleges seek more students who can pay more, and especially those from out of state who are charged a much higher price, the institutions risk limiting access, he said. That could undercut the whole purpose of public education.

After the University of Alabama saw its state funds drop, it “made an all-in commitment to out-of-state recruitment,” Mr. Barnes said. Today about 40 percent of the university’s freshmen come from out of state. The university has had enough capacity that it hasn’t hit the point where in-state students are being boxed out, he said, but things are sure to “heat up” when it does.

Using tuition revenue to replace state funds treats the symptom, not the disease, said Bart Grachan, an audience member, during the session’s question-and-answer period. Public colleges shouldn’t give up so quickly, said Mr. Grachan, director of the Community College Transfer Opportunity Program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Perhaps when their support is cut, he said, colleges should make a better argument to their state governments than “Hey, c’mon, we were using that.”

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