Today the New York Times ran a story about the growing popularity of the University of Alabama, not in the sports section, but in Education Life entitled How The University of Alabama became a national player. The thought behind the story is that excellent students from other states, even far from Alabama, are becoming attracted to the University of Alabama due to the honors program as well as more generous merit-based aid. While not all of these applicants will be serious football fans, it certainly helps to attract excellent students who also like to watch college football.
Interestingly, when the first 2016 FBS college football rankings came out this week, the five schools listed after top-ranked Alabama (Clemson, Michigan, Texas A&M, Washington and Ohio State) have stronger statistical profiles in terms of freshman retention and graduation rates. Only Texas A&M has less selective admissions than Alabama, although only three percent of its undergraduates come from states outside of Texas. Alabama gets more than half of its students, including 70 of its football players, from other states.
Alabama’s public universities enroll more than 240,000 students. Outside of Alabama they draw most heavily from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. Florida, Georgia and Texas each have two flagship state universities with more selective admissions than the University of Alabama. By pursuing non-residents aggressively, including and more aggressively using merit aid, the University of Alabama offers residents of these states the option of considering another flagship state school. It also helps that the university has a large alumni base in those states to help with recruiting as well as employment of students and recent graduates.
The most common cross shop with the University of Alabama, aside from a non-residents home state university, is Auburn University. While the decision between Alabama and Auburn might come down to an academic program, sports loyalty or proximity to Florida (Auburn is close to the border), there are some differences between the two flagship schools. Auburn also draws a significant percentage (34 percent) of its undergraduates from other states.
Looking at these numbers Auburn appears to be the better buy, if you have to be a full-pay student at either school and both offer the academic program that you want. The same appears to be true if either school offered a similar scholarship. However, with the scholarships University of Alabama can win out over the home state university in many states, most notably Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It can certainly win out of the flagships in Florida or Georgia for a quality applicant who cannot qualify for the aid programs in their states. The same for the Texas resident who cannot gain admission to UT-Austin
A more generous merit aid might be attracting better students to the University of Alabama while improving the statistical profile of incoming freshman classes.
But it has not necessarily made the school the best state university in its own state.
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