Solomon Medintz: The guilty out-of-state student

Thursday, January 17, 2019 - 6:29pm

James Burrill Angell, the longest serving president at the University of Michigan, described the University as a place that would provide “an uncommon education for the common man.” From its founding, the University was supposed to offer an elite education to people without the means to afford one in other parts of the country. The quote is still often thrown around to describe what the University aspires to be. It is a valuable goal, but the University has fallen short. The University has made both getting admission as well as campus life harder for low and middle-income in-state students by admitting more disproportionately wealthy, out-of-state students. This trend goes against the obligation the University has to the Michiganders whose tax dollars fund it. The University has both the financial flexibility and moral obligation to reverse this trend.

I need to make a disclaimer: I make these arguments in spite of myself, as I think this University should admit fewer students like me. I am a product of this policy change. I attend this school with unbelievable privilege. As an out-of-state student with a family that is willing and able to support me emotionally and financially, I do not suffer from the consequences of the University’s admissions policies. Yet I, and other out-of-state students, should want the University to accept more in-state students.

The University’s student demographics have changed — for the wealthier. Almost 10 percent of students’ families are in the top 1 percent income bracket, while only about 16 percent fall in the bottom 60 percent. Additionally, only 15 percent of students qualify for Pell Grants (a federal, need based financial aid package), a percentage which, based on results from a Washington Post study, is the ninth lowest out of the public universities in the top 100 colleges and universities list published by U.S. News & World Report. For comparison, at competitor schools like Michigan State University and University of California-Berkeley, 23 percent of students qualify for Pell Grants.

A similar story can be told about the proportion of in-state students at the University. University President Mark Schlissel has said that he wants “to keep the majority of undergrads from Michigan.” In 2008, the proportion of in-state students was 67 percent, but it was only 51 percent in fall 2016. Considering the fact that for tuition and fees, in-state students pay $15,262 per year, while out-of-state students pay $49,350, the reduction of in-state students from two-thirds to one-half of the student body makes both the University and its campus environment much wealthier. University officials are conscious of their motivations: The University is not need blind for out-of-state students, while it is for in-state ones, so taking more of the former makes financial sense.

To be fair, the University’s transition to accepting more out-of-state students follows a trend among flagship public universities around the country. Compared to other institutions, the University’s shifts look tame. The University of Alabama's student body went from 72 percent in-state in 2004 to 36 percent in-state in 2014. One study found that the University of Washington did not even give in-state students an advantage. However, not all flagship institutions have the same financial flexibility as the University of Michigan.

One way to observe the University’s financial flexibility is by going on a tour. Anyone who has been around campus can see that the University continues to invest in new buildings and infrastructure projects. The brand-new Biological Science Building ($261 million) opened this year, while the Kraus Natural Science Building ($120 million) and the Michigan Union ($85 million) have just started extensive renovations. The University also just released plans for the Central Campus Recreation Building ($150 million) to follow suit.

A closer look at endowment growth also demonstrates this relative flexibility. The University’s endowment is the eighth largest among all U.S. universities and the second largest among public universities. Furthermore, the University’s endowment has a 20-year annualized return rate of 9.6 percent, which places it in the top 10 percentile of all university endowments. A top 10 endowment with a top 10 return rate should be able to do more.

Beyond the moral obligations the University has to Michiganders, there are a few reasons it would be in the its best interest to accept more in-state students. First, as Sociology professor Elizabeth A. Armstrong argues, by accepting more out-of-state students, flagship universities are creating a “party pathway” that takes away from their mission to be a vehicle of social mobility. Second, based on data from South Carolina, in-state students are more likely to remain in their home state after graduation than out-of-state students, and thus are more likely to contribute to Michigan’s economy. When Michigan’s economy is strong, state higher education budget cuts are less likely. Last, admitting more in-state students would make Michiganders think more highly of the University. Instead of being perceived as a wealthy University for out-of-state students, they might see it as a place where they can go to school to get a great education.

I am an out-of-state student. These changes would make it harder for me and all out-of-state students to get into the University. But also I want the University to be the best it can be, and one way to do that is by accepting more in-state students.

Solomon Medintz can be reached at smedintz@umich.edu.