The idea of applying to the University of South Carolina first struck John Warrington when he flicked open Snapchat and watched Gamecock football fans tailgate ahead of a 2014 home game.
But the New Jersey native, who scored in the 98th percentile on the ACT college entrance exam, was not sold on going South for college until USC kicked in a sweet deal with his acceptance letter: in-state tuition.
“It made it cheaper than going to college in New Jersey,” said Warrington, 20, now a biomedical engineering and pre-med student at USC’s highly regarded Honors College.
Warrington is far from alone.
Last year, Warrington was one of nearly 5,900 out-of-state students lured to South Carolina’s flagship university with more than $84 million in tuition discounts, according to the latest data from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
More than half of USC’s nearly 10,000 out-of-state students last year received tuition discounts. More than a third got the in-state tuition rate.
The discounts are part of a push among public colleges nationwide, since the early 2000s, to recruit high-performing out-of-state students. On average, those students pay higher tuition than in-state students. They also drive up schools’ rankings.
However, critics worry that focusing on out-of-state talent could take classroom seats away from lower-performing S.C. students.
Enrolling record numbers of out-of-state students – typically white students from upper-middle-class families – could result in public colleges with student bodies that more closely resemble country clubs than the state that hosts them, they say.
But USC says its out-of-state recruitment efforts have been a roaring success.
Officials say the school’s growing out-of-state enrollment has helped it make up for deep cuts in state funding and driven up the school’s average test scores, graduation rates and national rankings.
USC’s growing out-of-state enrollment – the fastest among S.C. public colleges – has not cost opportunities for in-state students, school officials said.
While the influx of out-of-state students has caused a dip in the percentage of USC students who are African-American, USC says it ranks among the country’s top schools in graduating African-American students.
“We’re getting the cream of the crop from around the country,” said Dennis Pruitt, USC’s vice president for student affairs. “They contribute their experiences from their home states. They come with different religions, different backgrounds. But they also come with a high level of intellectual ability, so they create a more rigorous classroom for everybody.”
We’re getting the cream of the crop from around the country. They contribute their experiences from their home states. ... But they also come with a high level of intellectual ability, so they create a more rigorous classroom for everybody.
Dennis Pruitt, USC’s vice president for student affairs
A new focus
At the turn of the century, flush with state subsidies, USC and other colleges were considering a change in their mission – to become smaller and more selective, Pruitt said.
A series of small recessions changed that thinking, he said.
So did a $30 million donation from Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, a former out-of-state USC student, that helped the university identify and create pipelines to high-ranking high schools across the country.
Also, after 2000, the state began offering lottery scholarships to talented S.C. high school students who stayed here for college.
“That program stopped the outmigration (of S.C. students) and allowed us to concentrate on out-of-state students,” Pruitt said.
USC’s new out-of-state focus was solidified further by deep cuts in state funding for higher education that followed the 2007 Great Recession, Pruitt said. “We lost $120 million overnight.”
A dozen years ago, USC had one full-time student recruiter based outside the state.
Today, it has about 20. They live up and down the Interstate 95 corridor, but also in Chicago, Texas and California. The recruiters preach USC’s gospel to groups of high school students and forge relationships with school guidance counselors.
Many of USC’s out-of-state students come from neighboring states North Carolina and Georgia, where even talented students sometimes cannot get into Chapel Hill or Georgia Tech.
“It’s not that they’re not good students,” USC’s Pruitt said. “They just have so many of them that they can’t accommodate them. Why wouldn’t we import this intellectual capital?”
Catching a break
Tuition discounts have been key to USC’s efforts to attract talented out-of-state students in a competitive market, school officials say.
More than 37 percent of USC’s out-of-state students last year were charged the in-state tuition rate: $11,454 a year instead of the out-of-state rate of $30,882.
Another roughly 22 percent of the out-of-state students received a partial discount on the higher out-of-state tuition rate but still were charged more than in-state students.
Those discounts totaled $84.1 million last year. That figure does not include scholarship aid.
Meanwhile, 14 other S.C. public colleges – including six USC branches – combined to offer $61.3 million in tuition discounts to out-of-state students last year.
Over the past 10 years, USC has grown its out-of-state enrollment by more than 112.8 percent – to 9,960 last year – a rate far faster than that of any other public S.C. college.
Over that same span, the number of S.C. students at the Columbia campus grew by just 9.4 percent.
Out-of-state residents now make up 43 percent of USC’s student body, up from roughly 25 percent in 2006, according to Commission on Higher Education data.
USC officials liken the tuition breaks to discounts you might get from a car salesman: Without them, students would not come.
“If we stopped the (discount) policy, we would lose all those students who are getting them” and the extra revenue they bring, said Scott Verzyl, USC’s associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment.
USC and some legislators view the out-of-state discounts as being similar to the tax breaks the state offers manufacturing giants to expand here. They say out-of-state students boost local economies with their spending – and sometimes stick around after graduation.
“If they do well in college, we have a chance to have them become Gamecocks or Tigers for the rest of their lives,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “There’s a good chance we can recruit them to stay here if we have good jobs for them and good roads for them to ride on.”
‘Chasing their rankings’
But the sharp growth in out-of-state enrollment at public universities has raised eyebrows in state legislatures and the higher education community.
Some worry that schools are suffering from mission drift, putting their pursuit of higher academic rankings ahead of their charge to educate in-state students.
“What these schools really want is increased revenue, and they want to increase their prestige,” said Stephen Burd, an education policy analyst at New America, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonpartisan think tank. “They do that by throwing money at people who already could afford to go without it.”
What these schools really want is increased revenue, and they want to increase their prestige. They do that by throwing money at people who already could afford to go without it.
— Stephen Burd, education policy analyst at New America, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonpartisan think tank
There also are concerns about the trend’s impact on in-state students, especially from poor families.
“You’re attracting students from out of state, so there may be fewer in-state slots, and those slots will probably go to the best-prepared students,” said Tom Harnisch, a policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “Those (in-state) students are likely to come from the higher income profiles.”
It greatly concerns me because I think we’re missing the whole point. They’re more concerned with chasing their rankings – not in-state students.
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, says he worries about how out-of-state recruitment efforts are affecting on-campus diversity.
USC’s student body has become increasingly white because of the influx of out-of-state students, Commission on Higher Education data show.
In 2006, about 30 percent of USC’s students were minorities, and 13 percent were African-American. Last year, roughly 26 percent were minorities and 10 percent were African-American.
“It greatly concerns me because I think we’re missing the whole point,” said Jackson, who sparred with USC officials over the school’s diversity at a state Senate hearing earlier this year. “They’re more concerned with chasing their rankings – not in-state students. When it’s about the rankings, they go after certain students.”
You’re attracting students from out of state, so there may be fewer in-state slots, and those slots will probably go to the best prepared students. Those (in-state) students are likely to come from the higher income profiles.
— Tom Harnisch, policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities
Added Jackson: “It seems as if we are going backward in our mindset, which 10 or 20 years ago was: ‘We are going to make our campus more diverse.’ ”
‘Admitting almost everybody’
Those concerns are unfounded at USC, officials say.
School officials say minority enrollment numbers alone do not tell the whole story.
USC’s Columbia campus was home to more than 8,800 minority students last year, at least a 10-year high.
True, the growth in minority students has not kept pace with the even faster growth out-of-state enrollment. But maintaining that pace is difficult in a state with a shrinking number of African-American high school graduates, USC’s Verzyl said.
Still, Pruitt said, USC in 2014 was in the top 3 percent of four-year colleges nationwide in the number of degrees awarded to African-Americans.
While USC’s academic standing has risen due to its out-of-state recruitment efforts, the school remains accessible to South Carolinians, administrators say.
The average high school grade-point average of USC freshman is nearly a 4.0 – 0.61 points higher now than it was 15 years ago – and the average SAT score is 97 points higher.
But those higher scores have not cost classroom seats for lower performing in-state residents, USC administrators insist. Those students still have pathways into USC, officials say, if not through direct admission, then through USC’s smaller sister campuses – in Aiken, Sumter, the Upstate and elsewhere – or through bridge programs with S.C. technical colleges.
“All along, we’ve said we’re going to take every qualified student we can in-state, and we’re going to fill the rest of our seats with out-of-state students,” said USC’s Pruitt. “The fine line becomes, of course, who is a qualified student? But we’re admitting almost everybody.”
Tuition discounts at S.C. colleges
S.C. public colleges last year offered roughly $145.4 million in tuition breaks to out-of-state students. A look at what each college did:
Coll. of Charleston
SOURCE: Commission on Higher Education