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Program gives college students a break on out-of-state tuition

The little-known Western Undergraduate Exchange offers discounts at public colleges and universities to students from 15 states.

April 22, 2012|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Samantha Morgan, a senior at Millikan High School in Long Beach, is enrolling at Northern Arizona University this fall. Under the interstate discount program, she will pay $12,700 a year in tuition rather than $20,800.
Samantha Morgan, a senior at Millikan High School in Long Beach, is enrolling… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

While her classmates agonize over which college to attend, high school senior Samantha Morgan is passing up offers from Cal State campuses in Long Beach and San Jose. She is heading out of California to avoid overcrowded classes and other state budget problems.

And she can afford it thanks to a little-known program that offers discounts at public colleges and universities to students from 15 states, most of them in the West.

Morgan is taking advantage of the Western Undergraduate Exchange to enroll at Northern Arizona University this fall. Under the interstate agreement, she will pay $12,700 a year in tuition, compared with $20,800 for other out-of-staters at the Flagstaff campus. Her bill will be double California State University's nearly $6,000 a year, but she wants to graduate in four years and avoid delays that budget cuts are causing at California public universities.

"It definitely made a difference in where I was going to go," said Morgan, who attends Millikan High School in Long Beach. "It just made the decision easier."

She is part of a growing, although still relatively small, cadre of students in the program, which sets tuition at no more than 150% of in-state rates and saves undergraduates on average $7,700 a year. The arrangement is possible because, even in these tough economic times, some campuses in other states have more space at their universities and are happy to take in neighbors at less than full freight. In all, 150 public colleges — some two-year, some four-year — take part; only 10 are in California.

Last fall, 29,077 students took advantage of the tuition discount, up from about 22,100 four years before, in states from Alaska and Hawaii to North Dakota and New Mexico. The number of Californians has more than doubled in that time to 9,717 and now is 10 times larger than the number of residents of the other 14 states who come to California.

California "is a huge winner" in the program because it exports so many more young people than it receives, said Margo Colalancia, director of student exchanges at the nonprofit Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Co., which runs the program. "This is a real relief valve for the state now."

For Californians, the most popular destinations are Northern Arizona University, the University of Nevada at Reno, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Southern Oregon University and New Mexico State University. In California, 10 of the 23 Cal States have joined, with the Humboldt and Chico campuses attracting the most out-of-staters. University of California doesn't participate, no surprise since it has been pushing to add non-resident students who pay $23,000 a year more than California residents.

Such an exodus is not an answer to all the pressures facing public higher education in California, but this program and similar regional swaps in other parts of the country provide a benefit, according to Jerome A. Lucido, executive director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice.

"It is a valuable model at a time when some states like California are short on room at public campuses but have a lot of students, while other states have room and not enough students. In some ways it helps the nation educate more people and potentially at a lower cost," he said.

Some campuses limit the number of lower-paying students they accept, treating it as a scholarship for top students from other states. Some allow these students into only certain majors and departments. (The University of Arizona in Tucson, for example, opens up only mining engineering.) Some research-oriented campuses, such as the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Washington, haven't joined because, like UC, they already attract full-fare non-residents.

The program began in 1988; initially, Cal State's California Maritime Academy was the only school in the state to take part. As a result, about half the other states did not accept Californians. That changed after 2006, when other Cal States decided to join.

Cal State East Bay, for example, at first had plenty of room and liked the geographic diversity of the exchange students. Now in tighter economic times, the school still wants to stay in the program, which brings 67 out-of-staters to the Hayward campus, in part to help keep reciprocity alive for Californians who travel beyond the borders. "We see this as being a good citizen of California," said Greg Smith, a campus enrollment administrator.

Colalancia acknowledged that the Western Undergraduate Exchange remains somewhat unknown to many high school counselors and families. Its small staff has modest funds for marketing, which are shared with separate programs for graduate and health professional education, she said. Still, more efforts are in the works for staff to attend college fairs and to launch a social media campaign. A selling point is that students receive the discount regardless of family income.

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