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.

  • Alabama is the less expensive school for those who must pay full tuition and fees. It charges  residents approximately $9,600. Non-residents face a sticker price of just under $27,000. Auburn asks for about $1,000 more from a resident,  about $1,800 more from an out-of-state student
  • Alabama is the more selective school. Alabama accepted 54 percent of the students who wanted to join last year’s freshman class; for Auburn this was 78 percent.
  • Alabama has over 10,000 more undergraduates (32,000 vs. 22,000) on a smaller (1,100 acres vs. 1,900 acres) campus.
  • Auburn does better at retaining a freshman class (90 percent vs. 86 percent).
  • The percentage of the class of 2009 finished on time was about the same  (44% for Auburn, 41% for Alabama).
  • Auburn offers cooperative education across a larger number of majors while Alabama offers it only in Engineering. Auburn’s five-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 2009 was 68 percent vs. 61 percent for Alabama.
  • Alabama graduates in 2015 who took out loans owed, on average nearly $4,000 more than Auburn graduates. ($31,700 vs. $27,800). This might have been due to larger numbers of non-residents at the University of Alabama who would have paid more for their education than Alabama residents did.

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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