A Vault Full of Fool’s Gold

Photo by Jingming Pan on Unsplash

This is what you may spend in excess to send your child out of state for a public college education.

State universities more or less do the same job wherever you go. They produce a lot of teachers, nurses, engineers or whatever at a cost that is subsidized by the taxpayer. The cost of educating in-state students is also heavily subsidized by out-of-state children and parents who, for whatever reason, think their home state school offers as much as (or more at certain highly attractive schools), than up to $100,000 less in value than the public college in some other state. A differential that, for many public colleges, may increase even more as international students find it relatively difficult and comparatively unattractive to come to the United States to study for reasons motivated by a combination of US policies (only some of which have been adjusted by the Biden administration, adjustments that may not be secure depending on who wins the Whitehouse in 2024) and other more prosaic challenges to American universities’ relative attractiveness.

I use language like this because total in-state tuition on flag-ship campuses is often $100K less (and can come at an even greater discount) over four years than out-of-state tuition at a similar college. Whatever the figure, out-of-state applicants can get a rough estimate of their outlays by using net price calculators to see what the school is willing to tell you about your costs relative to those of someone born in-state. Searching “out of state cumulative net price” and “in state cumulative net price” with the desired state added may help you get more objective information.

It is true that another state university may offer programs the local one doesn’t or have them at quality your home state can’t match. If so, you should definitely consider going there. Though far from easy, students can sometimes gain in-state status. Either of these may justify (or reduce the cost of) going out of state for a public education. However, as universities’ need to support the cost of educating in-state students rises, out-of-state tuition will surely increase even faster than in-state fees because there is almost no political risk to raising charges for people who don’t vote there.

If you are willing to pay for your child to go to an out-of-state public university, you may want to send them to a financially sound private one instead or, at the least, carefully research going hundreds of miles from home for an education that may be had at comparable quality and lower cost nearby.

I have already noted politics is a key reason for why going to an out-of-state public college can be so much more expensive than staying close to home. Policy and practicality are others. It is important to remember that establishing residency can often be harder than you might think, and of course, the fact that in many departments resources are no greater than they will be at your state’s equivalent school is something campuses recruiting students — and me in my role as college search consultant for that matter — from out of state hope you will ignore. They also want you to ignore the higher cost in money and time of travel to their campuses than to your equivalent in-state school.

There are many systemic reasons why all colleges have become so expensive. Support services like academic advising and career services that have proven to be essential in facilitating student success, are relatively new.

Unfortunately, staff and facilities for these are pricey. To be truly effective, there needs to be something close to one field specialized adviser for every 300 students in academic advising. An even lower student to advisor ratio may be present at top tier colleges. With small majors it is often the case that either the number of advisors per students goes way up (good for the students but not for their pocketbooks), or advisors may have to spread themselves thin across disciplines with possible impacts on quality of advising when this happens.

Career services student to staff ratios must also be low enough to ensure counselor availability when it is needed.

Another reason education is costly is that many universities — whether publicly or privately funded — try to be everything to everyone everywhere. If this sounds like I’m comparing them to Harrod’s™, I am, and they simply can’t pull it off cost-effectively.

Check the opportunities at many state campuses — whether flagships or not — and you see they all have programs in nearly every discipline. No matter how wide ranging their offerings are, they trumpet whatever they have as being tremendously broad very loudly. These programs and the services they require to be maximally successful, need specialized advising and require administrative attention not to mention building space, administrative support, and faculty, all of which cost lots of money.

Research the numbers of students in many of these majors which, on many public and private campuses can be described as redundant, and you will see schools have faculty teaching in areas that aren’t heavily subscribed or that don’t lead to good paying jobs after graduation because there are too many graduates and not enough jobs in related areas. A lack of jobs that can, literally, mean that students are at risk of being unable to earn their way out of debt depending on the discipline they choose to take up.

These majors/departments with relatively poor return on investment for their students also have assistants, academic and career advisers, deans, office, and classroom space charges (for things like A/V and tech support as well as heating and cooling for example) that drive up the cost of educating students in all programs across their campuses/systems. This is a huge problem because students pay a lot to graduate from colleges and either can’t find jobs in the areas they’re trained for or have what may be unnecessarily high debt they have to work off even if they are in “good paying jobs.”

Debt that may well be higher if you go out of state for a public education without careful research first.

Many graduates from “redundant” departments (those that often offer educations that ultimately prove to have a comparatively low return on investment) already struggle to find jobs appropriate to their levels of education — a problem likely to grow worse in the short term, and that will probably persist even if Covid-19 becomes truly endemic and far less dangerous than it is even in the Spring of 2022.

Of equal importance, every single “redundant” faculty and staff member, administrator, room charge, etc, on a campus adds to tuition for every student who goes there whatever their major may be. These “adds” get pricier and pricier as more and more are offered on campuses not academically capable of competing with other programs in the same state or region.

This leads to interesting questions: Do all large publicly funded campuses need to have people working and learning in every discipline? Are there ways to organize state systems so certain campuses specialize in certain discipline groups? Can there be campuses focused on the liberal arts, social sciences, business and finance, and STEM fields for example with the ability for students to take some of their relatively specialized courses remotely at first while they figure out what direction they want their lives to go in, ultimately transferring to the campus with the focused courses and facilities they need for their advanced training if it requires, for example, work in the laboratory or studio in order to produce high quality product?

Could this kind of allocation of resources ultimately save money for students and legislators alike while concentrating resources into truly high-quality centers of excellence students could access without paying for repeated instantiations of faculty and programs that, because they are small but extant on every state funded campus, cost lots of money without much return to either the student or the taxpayer?

Alternatively, could specialized campuses allow students to take prerequisites and distributional requirements using remote technology while getting their advanced courses and access to needed facilities for their particular training locally?

If I were a legislator, I would be asking these questions at budget time every year.

A greater focus on maximizing cost-efficiency of publicly funded systems and return on investment for their graduates whether those students came from in-state or out would almost surely improve the abysmally low level of support many state university systems now receive from taxpayers, something that the authors of a recent Wall Street Journal piece argue is already the case in North Carolina and Texas where the percentage of in-state students on the flagship campuses is very high relative to other states like Alabama where the proportion of in-state students is very low.

This is important for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that a state university system like Alabama gets relatively little out of the money it spends on its public colleges. Despite recruiting a lot of out of state students, only 14% of out-of-state graduates are still living there five years after graduation. Put another way, in-state recruits are close to five times likelier to be there five years after receiving their degrees than their out-of-state peers.

This means what money Alabama does spend on its public universities often doesn’t support places for people who will actually stay there once they’re done. For students, the net price of attendance is comparable until larger loans are taken into account which ultimately lead to significantly higher costs for educations after whose completion most students will leave the state.

All of this means you should research to find out just how many people stay in the state(s) you hope to go to college in. This is particularly important if you or your child is thinking seriously about going out of state for a public education which you will need to finance with student loans of any sort. These numbers aren’t always easy to find so you should ask your potential colleges on their statistics for this. Although an imperfect proxy for this, comparing residents’ median incomes and the number of four year (or higher) degree holders across states can give you a sense for whether college educated people stay there or not after they graduate.

In states like Alabama, focusing on giving seats to people in state and on raising earnings to debt ratios for all students would help graduates find good jobs, let them pay more in taxes, and be more able — and hopefully willing — to support their alma maters’ full slate of work via donations of all sizes and support for higher budgetary allocations from their state legislatures later in life.

Donations privately funded schools already see from far higher percentages of alums than publicly funded schools do in part because their graduates tend to earn more whatever their debt may be.

Support from state legislatures that, per the Wall St. Journal piece cited above, colleges that primarily draw from in-state receive via their taxpayers who are not asked to provide aid to students who, using Alabama as an example, are likely to leave the state once their educations have been completed with higher loans to pay off than their peers who grew up in-state will carry. This outcome may well add to doubts many reasonable people have about the value of college educations in general, and public campuses.

Either direct or indirect experience of this sort can add to doubt about the value of higher education in general and carried to the states in which they now live.

All of this, at a minimum, risks reduced support for public funding of higher education in the places these relatively heavily indebted people have moved to.

Evidence shows most college students believe living away from their parents lets them grow in ways they can’t if they remain at home. Being on campus lets them make connections that will impact their futures personally and professionally while growing as young adults by paying bills, making choices on food etc, and yes, partying, in ways not being on campus often keeps them from doing. We also know students do worry about the cost of college, and their degrees are relatively more expensive when they attend out-of-state public campuses than when they go to their in-state flagships.

Students think the benefits of college — and of living on campus — are important. Even when the cost of college is high, the fact that many students want to be on campus to the point of objecting to covid protocols that keep them from being there, shows they will pay for those benefits if they can get them. Recent lawsuits show that when students can’t benefit from the entire package of social, cultural, instructional, research, and service opportunities that comes with on campus learning, they doubt whether learning from faculty at a distance is worth the tuition they are asked to pay at many schools, particularly those where they are charged relatively high amounts whenever payments are made.

It is therefore logical to assume that if in-state flagships and other campuses were less expensive (or perceived to be so) for in-state students to attend, they would see plenty of good socioeconomically diverse applicants they are missing out on now, because these potential candidates see high sticker prices and feel they can’t afford to go there.

The balance of cost of tuition and fees versus the benefit of being on campus will be higher everywhere if all colleges — not just publicly funded ones — and those deciding where to go — think through the cost of the programs they offer, how they provide services, help students build marketable skills, and create opportunities for personal and practical growth to ensure they draw enough in-state students to justify their costs to the tax payer rather than rampantly increasing it — mostly to the parents who send their children out of state for training their in-state colleges will, more often than not, match in ROI, particularly when, according to that WSJ piece I refer to above, the price of studying out-of-state is 270% higher than in-state, causing many students and their families to not only pay up to that 270% in added tuition but also a tremendous amount in added interest on student loans, too.

Dr. Matthew Weed is an educational search consultant, speaks and consults on improving outcomes in healthcare for people with chronic health needs, a motivational and topical speaker, and more. See the COLLEGE SEARCH CONSULTING page on his website to learn about his work in this area and schedule personalized attention if you are interested in that. He also has rapidly growing sets of hundreds of pointers to material by a wide variety of authors in his RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS APPLYING TO COLLEGE and collection of links to information on COVID-19 AND THE COLLEGE SCENE which, as of spring 2022, there is no cost to access.

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Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.

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Matthew Weed

Matthew Weed

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.

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