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Alabamians now a minority at UA

Andy McWhorter

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Douglas Fair and Brandon Skinner sat at the head of the table in a meeting of The 49, the University’s out-of-state student organization, prepared for a transition. 

Fair, a senior from Knoxville, Tennessee, who helped found the organization, stepped down as its president and turned over the leadership to Skinner, a junior from Philadelphia majoring in mathematics.

“Doug will be sticking around as kind of an advisor, but from now on I’ll be taking over the president role,” Skinner said.

At the same time The 49 made its transition, the position of out-of-state students at The University of Alabama as a whole had transformed. For the first time in the University’s 183-year history, a majority of UA students are not from the state of Alabama. Together, out-of-state and international students outnumber in-state students.

Stephen Katsinas, professor of higher education administration and director of the Education Policy Institute, said the shift in demographics at The University of Alabama is the product of a years-long plan.

“That this happened was no accident,” he said. “It was the result of a deliberate plan and good leadership.”

Out-of-state students made up 4,279, or about 62 percent, of this year’s 6,865-person freshman class, according to the Office of Institutional Research’s annual census. In-state students, on the other hand, accounted for 2,474, about 36 percent. While this is the highest the ratio of out-of-state to in-state students in a freshman class has ever been, the trend itself is nothing new. Out-of-state students have outnumbered in-state students in every freshman class since 2011.

This year, the trend of freshman classes with out-of-state majorities has tipped the scales of total student enrollment for the first time. In-state students now account for 17,830, about 49 percent, of the University’s 36,155-person student body. Students from states other than Alabama make up 16,622, about 46 percent, of the student population, while international students make up 1,670, about five percent.

Together, out-of-state and international enrollees total 18,292 students, 51 percent of the University’s student body. By a margin of 462 students, in-state students are a minority for the first time in The University of Alabama’s history.

As he opened the meeting of The 49, Fair said the increased population of out-of-state students makes their role on campus more important than it has been in the past.

“Just because students are from out of state doesn’t mean they come in knowing other out-of-state students,” Fair said. “This connection is honestly more important at this juncture than it ever has been because of the high amount of students.”

While students at The University of Alabama come from all 50 states, most still call the South home. Of the 16,622 out-of-state students at the University, 5,901 come from Georgia, Florida, Tennessee or Mississippi. Another 1,612 call Texas home. Only California, with 901 students, breaks the top five in number enrolled and isn’t part of the South.

These students did not choose to come to The University of Alabama without reason. Katsinas said a number of factors led to students choosing to enroll at the University in rapidly growing numbers.

“First, we are in the midst of a period of record demand nationwide for higher education,” he said.

The number of 18 to 24 years old in the United States has grown by about 5 million between 1996 and 2012, Katsinas said. At the same time, flagship universities in many large states, where the growth in demand is most acute, have placed caps on enrollment.

“Enrollments at flagships like UT-Austin neared 50,000 by 1975 or 1980; unless Texas built additional universities from scratch, many more students would be chasing slots at Texas or Texas A&M in 2010 than in 1990,” Katsinas said. “Students who a generation ago might have been accepted at Texas’ flagships are now choosing a flagship university experience at UA.”

At the same time other universities began to implement caps, The University of Alabama began heavily marketing itself to out-of-state students, Katsinas said. Victoria Bernier, a sophomore from Connecticut majoring in finance, said she first began considering the University when her father found a scholarship opportunity online.

“I have the Presidential Scholarship,” she said. “It was based on SAT and ACT scores. That’s actually not something that is offered in New England, is a merit-based scholarship. That’s why we looked south.”

The University was just one school on the list of colleges Bernier was considering. The distance from home made her skeptical at first, she said. But then she decided to visit the campus.

“Once we got here, meeting everyone, seeing that the academics are really good, and the people are even nicer,” she said. “The North does not have a reputation for being nice.”

At the end of her college search, Bernier only applied to The University of Alabama.

Skinner said he believes the University gets out-of-state students interested with scholarship offers but tips the balance with everything else it offers.

“The money is the thing that starts it, I think,” he said. “That’s what gets students to look here. That’s what got me to pay attention to The University of Alabama. But once you visit here, the campus is beautiful, with all the additions they’ve made in the past few year, they really put a lot of money into academic buildings. You can see there’s a real focus on academics down here as well. You learn by visiting here that it’s not just a football school. There’s a lot more to Alabama.”

Rachel Adkins, a sophomore from San Francisco majoring in economics and international relations, said she came to Alabama because she wanted to experience the South.

“I think a lot of girls I know are looking at sorority life, and everybody looks at Alabama as this crazy, amazing sorority place,” she said. “I think that’s why a lot of girls are interested.”

While many of her friends decided to stay in California and go to school in the UC System, the steep price tag – a year at UC-Berkeley can cost $32,168, according to their admissions website – pushed her towards The University of Alabama and its scholarship offer.

Once they decide to come to The University of Alabama, the adjustment can be difficult for out-of-state students who might be hundreds of miles from their home state. The goal of The 49, Skinner said, is to help ease that transition.

“I think we have a great purpose here now that there’s so many more out-of-state students here,” he said. “Although they all fit to the demographic of ‘out-of-state students,’ they’re from vastly different places. I’m from Philadelphia. I have very little in common with somebody who’s from Sacramento, California, or somebody who’s from Houston, Texas. We come from very, very different backgrounds.”

Bernier said she feels more in common with other students from her region than with out-of-state students as a whole.

“Most of the out-of-state people are actually in the region here, so they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m from out of state – Georgia,’” she said. “That’s right here. You know nothing about what I’m talking about when I refer to something that’s different. I do see myself as someone as someone from New England and not someone just from out of state.”

Adkins said the biggest thing she noticed about the move to Tuscaloosa was that most people dressed very similarly, and there were fewer ethnic communities compared to San Francisco. Although out-of-state students can feel homesick, particularly when they are far from home, Adkins said she knows many who have enjoyed their time in the South after making the adjustment.

“I know a lot of people that have definitely fallen in love with the South,” she said. “One of my good guy friends is from Arizona and he’s going to stay here. Other people from around the South are considering moving to Alabama.”

Skinner said he came to the University with a cynical view of the South, but his view changed after he spent time in Tuscaloosa.

“Before I came here, would I have written off the South and said I wanted to go home immediately after?” Skinner said. “Yeah, absolutely. But I am completely open to working in the South when I get my degree. I have no objection to going back home, but I love it down here. If I could find a job down here, that’d be great.”

Although out-of-state enrollment has grown at the same time in-state enrollment has stagnated or shrunk, UA President Judy Bonner said students from Alabama are not displaced by students from other states.

“As the state’s flagship institution, providing an excellent education to students from Alabama is a top priority,” Bonner wrote in an emailed statement. “We welcome out-of-state and international students, but those students do not take spaces away from qualified Alabamians.”

Far from hurting the educational prospects of Alabamians, Katsinas said growing out-of-state enrollment will benefit the state in the long run.

“Can anyone doubt that regions and states with better educated populations will have better economic futures?” he said. “The future will go to those who can attract outstanding human capital. So it’s good for Alabama that UA and Auburn as well can attract substantial numbers of out-of-state students.”

As state funding has decreased since the Great Recession, Katsinas said out-of-state enrollment has helped support funding for higher education in Alabama. Alabama was second in the nation for cuts in state funding to higher education after the recession, yet more in-state students are enrolled at the University than in 2003 and faculty members at the University have seen steady pay raises for a decade, Katsinas said.

“Out-of-state students are subsidizing what the state of Alabama is not investing,” he said. “Put differently, the growth and excellence UA has enjoyed since the Great Recession was not the result of increased state tax appropriations for public universities.”

Philip Westbrook, assistant professor of educational leadership and former director of The Blackburn Institute, said the growth of the out-of-state population works to improve the perception the rest of the United States has of both the University and the state as a whole.

“The economic impact is very strong, as well as the image impact, because even if the students who come here from other states choose to go other places after they graduate, we’re impacting the way that the country perceives the state of Alabama,” he said.

The influx of out-of-state students is also a factor in rising standards at the University. This year’s freshman class had an average ACT score of 26.1, the highest in the University’s history, and an average high school GPA of 3.65. The class also had 135 National Merit Scholars, 20 National Achievement Scholars and more than 2,100 freshmen who scored 30 or higher on the ACT. Skinner said he believes out-of-state enrollment allows the University to select from a broader pool of candidates.

“I think the University’s original goal was to make the University more competitive by inviting competition from throughout the country,” Skinner said. “It’s a really complete experience, that I think before the University wasn’t getting, and now, because they have these influences from all throughout the country, you’re finally getting the very complete experience here.”

As the University continues to grow, driven in part by the arrival of out-of-state students, infrastructure issues have risen on campus and in the larger Tuscaloosa community. In 2012, the University allowed some students to park their cars in different lots after space became scarce around The Riverside Community. In 2013, the University leased space in off-campus housing complexes to handle overflow. After a glut of new student housing development, Tuscaloosa Mayor, Walt Maddox formed the Student Housing Task Force to examine the growth of large student housing complexes in the city.

Bonner said she expects the University will continue to grow for the near future.

“We expect our enrollment to continue to grow in the next several years, although at a slower rate than in the past,” she said. “We have planned for this growth and will continue to expand our faculty and our facilities to meet the needs of all our students.”

Westbrook said continued growth, as well as the influx of out-of-state students, will make the University continue to evolve. Although there will be growing pains, he said, the University will be in a better position to fulfill its mission.

“The University is growing,” he said. “There are a lot of logistical things that change as a result of the rapid growth that we have. Does that mean that the University has changed its purpose? Many people view it as a different place because it looks different and there are things that may feel different from when we had 19,000 students. But I think that we’re achieving our mission in a stronger way, in that we’re able to do more teaching, research and service – what you see on the sign when you come into our campus. Those are our missions.”

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Alabamians now a minority at UA