08.18.118:20 PM ET

The Out-of-State Admissions Edge

More than ever before, cash-crunched state schools are looking for out-of-state applicants to balance their budgets. Steve Cohen on which schools offer the biggest advantage.

Some kids apply to faraway colleges so they can break with their parents and party—er, study—in peace. But choosing a state school that’s not where you live isn’t just a good way to gain independence; it’s a smart admissions tactic, too.

College-admissions season is upon us, and it promises to be just as competitive as last year. And one of best-kept secrets in college admissions this year is that many top state universities will be admitting more out-of-state applicants than ever before.

This opens up a whole new group of schools that were formerly much more difficult to get into—great schools, some of them with significantly more openings, and for a few campuses, slightly easier academic standards.

The stats speak for themselves. At the University of Illinois last year, fully 27 percent of its freshmen came from out of state, up from 19 percent just five years ago (and that doesn’t include the 17 percent of the freshman class who were foreigners). Similarly, in 2010, the University of Washington had an entering class of 27 percent out-of-staters. This, too, was a significant jump from 19 percent just three years earlier.

The University of Virginia tries to maintain a student body composed of 30 percent out-of-state students. But last year it edged up to more than 33 percent. And the University of Michigan is up to 40 percent out-of-staters, compared with 37 percent five years ago.

Even colleges that shunned out-of-state students for years are showing a marked receptivity. The University of California’s top campuses—Berkeley and UCLA—have doubled and even tripled their rosters of out-of-state kids. At UCLA, the total percentage of out-of-state kids is still relatively low: only about 7 percent of last year’s entering class. But at Berkeley, it was a whopping 19 percent and will grow to 20 percent this year, according to Janet Gilmore, a university spokesperson. Five years ago, the percentage of out-of-state students at Berkeley was a mere 5 percent.

At most of these world-class universities, admission is still very selective. The acceptance rate for out-of-state students at UCLA was only 30 percent last year. But that was still better than what California residents experienced, which was a 21 percent acceptance rate. And it even got a tad easier for out-of-staters compared with previous years. Five years ago, out-of-staters applying to UCLA were admitted only 21 percent of the time, compared with their California counterparts, who saw a 23 percent admit rate.

At Berkeley, 39 percent of out-of-state applicants received the proverbial fat envelope, compared with only 24 percent of California applicants. And opposed to five years ago, when out-of-state kids saw a 22 percent acceptance rate at Berkeley—compared with in-staters' 25 percent—the trend is looking good for out-of-state applicants.

What’s driving this statistically significant advantage? As is so often the case with the decisions made at colleges today, it’s mainly about money.

As states continue to weather the financial crisis, they are trimming budgets. And expenditures to their prestigious state-run universities have taken a hit. Consequently, schools have consciously—and sometimes publicly—increased the number of out-of-state students, who traditionally pay higher tuition than in-state kids.

Admissions officers readily admit that the higher out-of-state tuitions help subsidize in-state kids. But admissions deans at all top colleges also seek out geographic diversity—as well as many other types of diversity beyond racial—in putting together their entering class.

“Very interesting students from outside the commonwealth enhance the educational experience for everyone,” said Greg Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia. “We’re committed to serving Virginians, and we have to find that right balance.”

What’s driving this statistically significant advantage? As is so often the case with the decisions made at colleges today, it’s mainly about money.

Michael Muska, the dean of college relations at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep—and formerly a senior admissions officer at Brown and Oberlin, and my coauthor on Getting In!—reinforces the point: “Good colleges are not looking for the well-rounded kid; they’re looking for the well-rounded class. That means they want a few super-scholars for each academic department, top athletes for each team, wonderful musicians, dancers, actors, and journalists. And they also want diversity: racial, economic, geographic.”

Among the most sought-after groups on many top campuses are “first-gen” kids—children who will be the first generation in their family to go to college. Virginia’s Roberts made the point clearly: “One of the benefits of using the common app is that we are opening ourselves up to more kids.” And many of those first-gen kids are outside Virginia.

Out-of-state families typically pay two to five times what in-state students pay for tuition. At the University of Illinois, in-state students pay annual tuition of $14,414. Their out-of-state roommates pay $28,556. At the University of Michigan, state residents pay $12,634 in annual tuition. Non-Michigan residents pay $37,782. And at UCLA, California residents pay $12,686 in annual tuition. Out-of-staters shell out a hefty $35,564.

For most families, these out-of-state tuition costs are sizable, especially when you add room, board, books, travel, and general living arrangements. But compared with good private colleges and universities that can cost $40,000 (USC, Brown) or more than $50,000 (Amherst, Middlebury, Claremont McKenna, George Washington), the initially painful out-of-state tuition premiums suddenly seem like a bargain.

Which means that, in this economy, one can almost hear parents plotting their next move: Let’s get Kim into a great state university. She’ll pay out-of-state tuition the first year, then establish legal state residence. By her sophomore year, she’ll be paying in-state tuition for the rest of her time at State U.

Some Selected Tuitions for Out-of-State Students

• University of Illinois

• Northwestern



• University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)

• Duke

• University of Virginia

• Georgetown

• U of California Berkeley

• Stanford

• Northwestern

Unfortunately, such schemes generally won’t work. State legislatures have passed laws against them, and the colleges themselves have instituted rules that make it incredibly difficult for students admitted as out-of-staters to change their residency for the purpose of paying lower tuition.

But there is one little-known secret worth passing along.  Many of these fine state universities use what is known as “rolling admission.” That means that they evaluate a student as soon as the application is complete and submitted. And the earlier one applies, the better the chances of getting in. As the semester wears on and procrastinating seniors get their applications in later in the fall, the odds of admission get tougher.  Rolling admission is far more common at larger state universities than at smaller colleges.

This out-of-state tilt probably won’t last forever.  But for now, it’s an outstanding opportunity for kids looking for an admissions edge—or just a way to keep their families from visiting every other weekend.

The Top 30 State Universities for Out-of-State Students

% Out of State
Size of Entering Freshman Class
Out-of-State Tuition

U of Vermont

Indiana U

U of Michigan

College of William & Mary

Georgia Institute of Technology


U of Wisconsin

Penn State

U of Virginia


U of Colorado

U of Arizona

Arizona State

Virginia Tech

U of Washington

Iowa State

U of Connecticut

U of Maryland

U of Georgia

U of California, Berkeley

U of North Carolina



Ohio State


SUNY Binghamton

U of Texas

Texas A&M

U of California, San Diego

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