Pre-COVID Higher Ed: The ‘Importers’

A closer look at Mississippi State, 1 of 5 Southern schools casting a net beyond their state lines

5 large public universities in the South entered the post-2015 period with an ongoing strategy of enrolling many out-of-state students. We will label these five schools:

The Importers

They are:

In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas & Tennessee

In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas & Tennessee

Recruiting aggressively out-of-state seems like a sensible approach given the South’s stagnating high school class sizes. But there were costs associated with doing so.

Prices or enrollment or admissions standards – pick 2

There’s an old chestnut about software implementation: “speed, quality or cost – pick 2.”  Southern universities focusing on out-of-state recruitment faced the same choices that their Rocky Mountain colleagues did: loosen the financial aid pursestrings, loosen admissions standards — or lose students.  Pick 2.

How did the 5 Importers in the list do?  Their approaches are summarized and ranked below (most successful at top to least successful at bottom):

Mississippi State – Maintained enrollment and admissions standards by keeping pricing flat

Arkansas – Maintained enrollment and raised prices by loosening admissions standards

Auburn – Maintained enrollment and (mostly) admissions standards by keeping pricing flat

University of Mississippi – Ole Miss “picked 1” instead of 2, raising prices somewhat but losing enrollment and loosening admissions standards somewhat.

University of Alabama – Like Mississippi, it “picked 1”: raised prices but saw out-of-state enrollment fall with its admissions (and yield) metrics suffered.

It may not be a coincidence that the two universities facing the most difficulties also had the largest out-of-state shares in their student bodies.  Out-of-state recruitment looks to be highly competitive and hence unstable, if more financially lucrative than relying on in-state residents to fill classes.

After taking a closer look at the University of Alabama in an earlier post, we will look focus on the two Mississippi schools in this post and the next one, starting with Mississippi State (MSU), located close to the Alabama border.

Mississippi State students

Mississippi State students

Mississippi State – Financial aid budgets up

Along with Auburn, Mississippi State appears to have navigated the terrain better than the other Importers. MSU draws its entering classes mostly from in-state and close-by Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia (83% of the school’s students came from those four states in 2018), which means it is less geographically diversified than some of the other Importers. It maintained its enrolling class size and actually tightened admissions standards (at least up until COVID arrived), doing so by largely flat pricing and sharply increasing its financial aid budget to compensate for rising topline tuition. The administrative dynamics of raising tuition while at the same time compensating for the rise with more aid at the admissions decision point shows private college practices seeping into the more formal public sector pricing and budgeting.

Institutional aid, including merit and need

Institutional aid, including merit and need

Percentages can be deceiving here, so let’s present the raw numbers: between 2015 and 2019, the administrative process approved $3,022 increases in the official cost of attendance for Mississippi State (in-state tuition presented for simplicity). The enrollment office gave back about 3/4 of that increase in its financial aid offers and only increased net prices by $826, over the period. At the same time, out-of-state Average Net Cost remained flat between 2015 and 2019, per CTAS analysis, with a total rise of <3% over the entire period.  Mississippi State prioritized maintaining enrollment and succeeded in welcoming stable entering classes:

Mississippi State entering classes

Entering class size. Out-of-state recruitment stable at the 1350-1500 students per class level during this period.

The school achieved this while tightening admissions standards tightened, at least through 2019 before COVID arrived, something not seen in regional peers:

Admissions %

The 2020 admissions cycle, closing in the middle of COVID, clearly gave the institution disproportionate problems so we will have to see whether Mississippi State’s success continues. The university did not issue a press release covering the 2021 entering class and admissions, so recent information is lacking.

In the next installment of our series, we will look at the University of Mississippi, which encountered more difficulties than Mississippi State.

Read this post and others at our CTAS Higher Ed Business blog on Substack.