The College of William and Mary received a record number of applications from in-state students heading into this fall. But for the first time in more than a decade, the college saw its number of applications drop among out-of-state students by 4 percent.
Previously, the number of out-of-state applications to the school increased in each of the past 11 years, W&M Provost Michael Halleran said.
William and Mary routinely keeps its freshman classes split at around 65 percent from Virginia, and 35 percent from outside the state.
Several forces could have contributed to the drop in out-of-state students, all of which could affect the college in years to come.
Data from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia has the state's population increasing in every year since 2010, a trend that mirrors the U.S. population.
Much of the population growth in Virginia has come in its rural areas. The number of students graduating high school moves cyclically, and it has decreased over the past few years — also mirroring a national trend.
Hamilton Lombard, a research specialist with the Demographics Research Group at the Cooper Center, said the current decline is primarily because of demographics.
"You had a large boom around the late '80s and the early '90s," he said. "You're starting to see class sizes getting smaller. It was something people probably could have seen a ways off."
A larger issue
Halleran, who has been provost at the college since 2009, says that the decrease in students graduating high school could be directly tied to the drop in out-of-state-applications to W&M.
That phenomenon isn't specific to Virginia or to the mid-Atlantic region. It's an issue universities around the country are watching closely, and it has happened before.
The last drop hit educational institutions during the early to mid '70s, Lombard said. Colleges responded by widening the type of students they took in.
"For [a school] at the time that wasn't sure about going co-ed, that would have decided it," he said. "You also had black students coming in, some because of affirmative action."
This time around, many universities in Virginia and elsewhere are ramping up their efforts to bring in students who live abroad and want the chance at an American education.
"International students, that's been a big initiative," Lombard said. "It's a lucrative option for sure. Most universities have seen an increase in their amount of international students."
As the director of undergraduate recruitment at Virginia Commonwealth University, Vishon Luck sees some of the same issues affect recruitment there.
After enrolling roughly 4,200 students in the fall of 2015, VCU enrolled 4,090 last fall. Luck said the reduction is small enough so that he and his staff are not yet concerned. VCU enrolled about 3,600 students in the fall of 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Today's college recruiting climate is so competitive that schools must be more diligent in choosing the students they want since more schools are after the same students.
"It requires you to be a little more creative in finding students," he said. "That net you might have thrown out before would be a little more narrow."
Financial aid dynamics
William and Mary makes sure to meet the financial need of its in-state students through grants, loans, and scholarships.
The university cannot do the same for out-of-state students. William and Mary says an out-of-state student can only get one-quarter of their need met, at the most.
Just two universities in the country fully meet the financial need of out-of-state-students. Both are fellow "public ivies" who compete for the same students that William and Mary covets: the University of North Carolina, and the University of Virginia.
W&M's For the Bold fund-raising campaign is trying to raise money to offer more aggressive financial aid packages to out-of-state students.
For now, Halleran was reluctant to say William and Mary had a long-term issue on its hands.
"It's too early to say," he said.
Since the inception of William and Mary Promise in 2013, the college has raised tuition but always mentioned that in-state students would pay no more in tuition than they did their first year. Other charges, like housing and fees, may change.
First-year in-state students will pay $30,350 in tuition and fees this year; their out-of-state counterparts will pay $51,494.
Out-of-state students may look at the price tag and simply say that the cost is too steep, Halleran said.
"We're probably starting to see a ripple from that," he said at a Sept. 22 Board of Visitors meeting.
Poaching Virginia students
William and Mary is running into an issue that several schools around the state are: Universities in other states are enticing students to leave Virginia with attractive financial aid packages.
As Christopher Newport University widens its recruiting footprint outside of the Hampton Roads area, Dean of Admissions Robert Lange sees the fervor with which other schools recruit Virginia's high school students.
He mentioned North Carolina State, but spoke more broadly to two groups of schools.
"We're seeing it in the SEC schools, but especially with these Big Ten schools," he said. "They recruit very aggressively in Northern Virginia. Even in Virginia Beach, you're seeing schools that you didn't always see."
By offering money to students who will still pay the out-of-state rate, universities make revenue from families that will make up the difference between out of state tuition and scholarship money.
"They are discounting the out-of-state rate with what I presume is ... endowments, so scholarships," he said. "They're still taking in more tuition and fees than they would from in-state students."
Halleran said William and Mary cannot offer the same packages that some private schools do and many prospective students also consider private schools. He thinks out-of-state students may consider that when making their decision.
"Private schools have much more financial aid than public schools," he said.
Even as local and national forces subtly change the look of the college's freshman classes moving forward, Halleran isn't yet concerned about the university.
"If we're seeing it again after two or three years, then maybe we'll say we need to do something different," Halleran said.
Wright can be reached at 757 345 2343.
William and Mary: 1,520 (2015) 1,508 (2016)
Christopher Newport: 1,224 (2015) 1,225 (2016)
Virginia Commonwealth: 4,200 (2015) 4,090 (2016)*
*Both are approximations.
Source: Enrollment figures come from the respective schools