Tuition now Approacing $30,000 a Year
A flagship university is a state's premier educational institute. Taxpayers fund these research facilities with the idea that they offer a more affordable alternative to a private college.
At least that used to be the case. However, massive building projects, coupled with reduced public funding, has created an unfortunate scenario. Tuition has risen so fast that many academically talented middle-class students are effectively priced out.
So the schools have found a new market. Wealthy foreign and out-of-state students are now flocking to these schools, because they offer an excellent education for about half the price one would pay at a tony private college.
In a different generation, many of the families that would have sent their children to an Ivy League school, or to another elite liberal arts school, have a new appreciation for public education.
Because this population can afford to pay the full cost of attendance, the flagships can get away with "gapping" students of more moderate means.
The Problem of "Gapping"
Tuition at many flagships across the country now ranges from about $25,000 to $30,000 a year. This is not affordable for the average family, without significant institutional aid. Oftentimes, though, this is not forthcoming.
Most families in the United States submit what's known as the FAFSA, an acronym for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the electronic document sent to all of the colleges a student has applied to. It gives these institutions an idea of what a family can reasonably afford to pay each year. This number is known as the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, for short. Some experts also believe this is an overly optimistic assessment of a family's finances.
If a financial aid office notices that a family has an EFC of $5,000 for instance, and tuition is about $25,000 a year, there is a gap to be filled. This is done with a combination of scholarships, grants and loans.
However, a college freshman may only receive $5,500 a year in Federal Student Loans. Given such a scenario, there is a difference of $14,500. If the school does not offer additional assistance, it means a student has been "gapped."
They are admitted, but there may be no conceivable way they or their family could pay $19,500 a year, the total amount with the EFC included. Some college admissions experts also call this "admit/deny."
Because of astronomically rising tuition, much of the middle-class is effectively priced out.
Foreign Students Courted
Although out of reach for the middle class, a state flagship is a veritable bargain for the wealthy. For families too rich to receive need-based aid, these public research universities are a bargain, compared to a private college where tuition may now top $60,000 a year.
This trend is not lost on the flagships, who aggressively recruit students from afar with generous scholarships that might make it possible for an in-state student to attend. However, giving such an incentive to a non resident will ultimately generate more cash for the institute. That's because non residents usually pay a premium to attend a college in a state other than their own. The discount brings the cost more in line with what an in-state student would pay, without institutional aid.
Is this Practice Fair?
There are two ways to look at it. An institute of higher education must keep an eye on the bottom line, and find ways to survive in a tough economic climate. So wealthy foreign and out-of-state students can help balance the budget.
However, because the financial profiles of these students are much more attractive than in-state students of more limited means, they are taking seats in the nation's flagships that might have gone to more academically talented in-state candidates.
There is also the question of whether these elite public schools are straying too far from their mission. Many were founded as "land grant" colleges with the sole intent of educating bright students from working class families. They were built from the ground up with taxpayer dollars and supported with alumni donations, with the expectation that they'd always be an alternative and less expensive means of obtaining an excellent education.