The University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus awarded $22 million in merit scholarships to out-of-state students last year, joining other public universities across the country in aggressively recruiting high-paying applicants.
The total far outstrips the $9.9 million in merit aid the UMass Amherst campus provided to in-state students, officials said.
A full 59 percent of the current non-Massachusetts students at UMass Amherst — or 2,926 students — received an average merit scholarship of $7,600, based on academic achievement rather than need.
To UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, the calculus is simple. With out-of-state students paying roughly twice the amount of locals — $31,000 in annual tuition and fees versus about $14,000 — handing out a $7,600 scholarship is still a net positive in terms of the tuition revenue the school brings in from out-of-staters.
“Without the significant premium we get from out-of-state students, we wouldn’t be able to educate as many in-state students,” Subbaswamy said in an interview.
UMass Amherst officials insist out-of-state students have not replaced spots for in-state students, noting that in-state enrollment growth has increased by 1,000 students since 2006, as the number of out-of-state students has grown as well.
The chancellor also explained that the scholarships — essentially tuition discounts, officials say —
“Having served throughout my career in senior administrative positions at flagship campuses in other states, I can state unequivocally that an institution’s vitality is enhanced immeasurably by a diverse student body that hails from across the country and around the world,’’ Subbaswamy said in a statement.
But some observers, including the conservative think tank Pioneer Institute, question whether the public university is living up to its duty to serve the residents of its own state.
“Why should the taxpayers be paying to provide scholarships to out-of-state students?” said Greg Sullivan, a researcher at Pioneer, which recently produced a critical study of UMass. “If there are scholarship dollars available, I would hope that they would be spent on in-state students.”
As state aid to public universities continues to decline across the country, the schools have turned to out-of-state students, who generally pay much more than their local counterparts, to stay competitive and prevent tuition increases for in-state residents.
But there is growing concern that the practice may have gone to far, leading some states and colleges — including the University of California Berkeley — to impose caps on the number of nonstate residents they admit.
A study published last year by the think tank New America examined the growing trend of public universities issuing merit scholarships and found that schools that provide such aid to a larger share of their freshmen tend to enroll more out-of-state students.
Another set of researchers last year found a correlation between an increased percentage of out-of-state students at public colleges and a decreased percentage of low-income students and underrepresented minority students.
“There’s definitely a sort of crowding-out effect,” said Bradley Curs, a professor at the University of Missouri who studied the out-of-state student phenomenon at 105 research universities.
The five-campus UMass system, which every year jousts with the Legislature for money, has seen an 85 percent increase in out-of-state students since 2008, according to the Pioneer study.
The system began focusing on recruiting nonstate residents in 2009, and in 2014 it set a goal of increasing in-state undergraduates by 7 percent and out-of-state undergraduates by 35 percent by 2018, according to the Pioneer study.
This year, for the first time, UMass Amherst admitted more out-of-state students than those from in-state. But of those who ultimately enrolled, the majority were from Massachusetts.
The UMass Boston campus started to lure out-of-state students with merit scholarships last fall. UMass Lowell and UMass Dartmouth also awarded millions of dollars in merit scholarship money to out of staters.
The UMass Medical School, in Worcester, which historically served only Massachusetts residents, began accepting out-of-state students for the upcoming academic year. The 25 additional students will pay $55,000 per year, compared with $38,000 for Massachusetts residents.
The medical school awarded five non-need-based scholarships of $28,500 each to out-of-state students, officials said.
Merit scholarships are not the only way the UMass system — and other colleges and universities — help students pay for school. At UMass Amherst, the campus provided $45 million in need-based aid to students, with 92 percent of that amount going to in-state students, according to campus officials.
With 23 percent of its undergraduates from elsewhere, the UMass system ranks low among New England public flagships and in the country for that percentage.
At the University of Vermont, 71 percent of students come from other states. A record number of out-of-state students enrolled at the University of Maine this year, after the school offered in-state tuition rates to students from other New England states.
Other states have gone after out-of-state students much more aggressively. The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa has 39 out-of-state recruiters; the nearly 20,000 out-of-state and international students there together make up more than half the enrollment.
In comparison, UMass Amherst has 10 admissions officers, who split their time between recruiting and reading applications.
The University of Arkansas offers a “New Arkansan” scholarship to high-performing students from neighboring states that covers most of the difference between in-state ($8,500) and out-of-state tuition ($21,800).
Arkansas wants about half its students to hail from other states and countries, said vice provost Suzanne McCray.
“We don’t have additional funding for the kinds of programs we want to provide so . . . those [out-of-state] students do help us continue to be on the cutting edge of things like nanotechnology,” McCray said.
UMass said it doesn’t seek that high of a percentage. Subbaswamy said the Amherst campus has about 26 percent out-of-state undergraduates, which he considers a comfortable number.
But other UMass campuses want to increase the number of out-of-state students. UMass Boston offers $10,000 merit scholarships (plus an invitation to the campus honors college) to out-of state students with a 3.5 GPA and 1,200 SAT score. That campus saw a 220 percent increase in out-of-state students since 2008, according to the Pioneer study.
Some state universities have experienced a backlash from lawmakers, who have attempted to cap the number of out-of-state students. Sullivan, at the Pioneer Institute, said he supports a cap at UMass Amherst only, at the current level.
In Iowa, legislation proposed last year would have tied state funding to the University of Iowa to the number of in-state students, but the measure failed.
The University of California was one of the first state systems to recruit out-of-state students, and it charges those students significantly more. But the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses, facing a backlash from advocates and state officials that the influx was harming in-state applicants, recently capped enrollment of non-Californians at their current levels, about 30 percent.
The trend also makes for interesting cross-country student swaps. For example, 268 students from Massachusetts attend the University of Alabama, while 34 students from Alabama attend UMass. Both sets of students pay thousands more than if they had stayed close to home.
But young adults don’t always select their school based on dollars alone.
Julie Kopacz, a rising UMass Amherst senior from Connecticut, pays about $10,000 more annually than she would if she attended the University of Connecticut. But she said she found a better sense of community at UMass and hopes the connections she makes will help her land a job in Boston.
“That was a really tough decision for me to make,” Kopacz said, who does not receive merit aid. “But it was worth it; I couldn’t see myself anywhere but UMass.”