Recruiting by leading public universities targets affluent out-of-state communities at expense of in-state low-income students and students of color, new research shows


On the heels of the recent college admission scandal comes new research that shines a light on more common – and legal – recruiting practices that stack the deck against low-income students and students of color in gaining access to leading public universities in their states.

The study, “Recruiting the Out-of-State University,” conducted by Crystal Han and Ozan Jaquette of the University of California Los Angeles and Karina Salazar of the University of Arizona, finds that certain flagship public universities, in search of higher revenue, are recruiting more out-of-state students from wealthy communities than low-income students and students of color in their own states. These recruiting practices, resulting in part from years of state budget cuts that have forced universities to rely more heavily on tuition and fees, amounts to “a startling degree of socioeconomic and racial bias.”

Among key findings of the research:

  • Most public research universities put a priority on recruiting out-of-state students rather than students from their home state. Of the 15 universities studied, 12 made more out-of-state visits than in-state visits; 7 of the 15 made more than twice as many out-of-state visits than in-state visits.
  • Out-of-state visits were concentrated in highly affluent communities in major metropolitan areas, ignoring rural communities, with most universities significantly less likely to visit public high schools with a high percentage of Black, Latinx, and Native American students, even after controlling for school size and student achievement.

The study spotlights the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa as representing “an extreme case of a transformation occurring at many public research universities.” The university’s admissions representatives made 4,349 off-campus recruiting visits in 2017, the study says, but only 392 of these were in Alabama. Their 3,957 out-of-state recruiting visits spanned metropolitan areas across the country, focusing on public schools and on private schools in affluent communities. Incredibly, the university made 934 visits to out-of-state private schools, more than double the total number of in-state visits. University representatives visited only about one-third of Alabama’s public high schools, concentrating on relatively affluent communities while largely avoiding high schools with the largest numbers of African-American students.

The study, which details recruiting behavior at 15 public flagship universities, is the first systematic, quantitative analysis of university recruiting behavior. The data on which the study is based was collected by “scraping” the travel schedules of university admissions officers posted on university admissions websites and by making public records requests.

While acknowledging the role of state disinvestment in higher education as a driver of the effort to attract affluent out-of-state students whose families can pay higher tuition costs, the researchers nonetheless suggest that university leaders need to revisit their recruitment strategies and be more systematic in looking for talent across all public high schools in the states they serve.

Ozan Jaquette, assistant professor of education at UCLA, said “This report shows that both state governments and public flagship universities are abdicating their responsibility to provide social mobility for meritorious state residents who aren’t born on third base. State policymakers must recognize that when they defund public universities, this incentivizes public universities to prioritize affluence over merit. At the same time, universities can no longer make rhetorical commitments to access, while focusing recruiting efforts on affluent out-of-state students. Put your money where your mouth is rather than only putting your money where the money is.

The report includes specific recommendations for university leaders, policymakers and advocates for more equitable access to higher education.

The research was funded by the Joyce Foundation, a private, non-partisan foundation based in Chicago that supports policy research to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation.

“The recent college admissions scandal coupled with the findings in this new study underscore the role of money in exacerbating inequity in higher education,” said Sameer Gadkaree, Joyce’s senior program officer for higher education. “States must re-invest in higher education with a focus on equity, including increasing funding levels for public universities and ensuring that those universities are increasing their outreach to low-income students and students of color.”

The full report can be found here