State School Student Swapping Scandal

As we enter June, sports fans will soon stop hyperventilating. Months of Stanley Cup and NBA playoffs will mercifully yield champions. After that, it’s just baseball, the only professional sport that runs at summer pace. Summer’s most successful team is undoubtedly the New York Yankees, capturing the World Series 27 times in the last century. As a Toronto Blue Jays loyalist, it pains me to write this. In the only American professional sport without a salary cap, the Yankees always had more money than other teams – unseemly and unsporting. My view hardened the first time I set foot in Yankee Stadium. We sat in the upper deck and from the fifth inning on, dodged fight after fight, most instigated by one bald beer-toting fan my history major roommate affectionately dubbed “Germany.” Sensing my shock, after the conclusion of beer, baseball, and brawls (in that order), my roommate guided me down to visit Monument Park, where Yankee greats like Ruth, Mantle, and DiMaggio are honored in bronze and stone.

Here are two names you won’t find in Monument Park: Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson. Not only because Mike never made an All-Star team and Fritz just one, but because 50 years ago, at the start of the 1973 season, the two New York Yankees starting pitchers held separate press conferences to announce they had swapped wives.

Actually, Mike and Fritz swapped more than wives. They swapped entire families, including dogs. It started at a New Jersey party where the couples agreed Mike would drive Fritz’s wife Marilyn to a diner while Fritz would drive Mike’s wife Susanne. They all had so much fun, they did the same thing the next night. All that drinking and driving led them back to the wrong houses and – ultimately – a very unconventional new arrangement. Yankees captain Thurman Munson did his best to defend his teammates to the New York Post: “Everyone knows we’re a bunch of crazy guys.” Yankees general manager Lee MacPhail half-joked to the press that the Yankees “may have to call off Family Day.”

The early 70s was a strange time. But 50 years on, swapping’s still going on. It’s apparent every time I open my mailbox. While most of the thick-paper wishbooks and elaborate mailers addressed to Leo, who completes his junior year next week, come from private universities and liberal arts colleges, a surprising number extol the virtues of public flagships like University of Florida, University of Michigan, Texas A&M, University of Virginia and University of Washington. Leo’s received something from most flagships with one notable exception: our home state of California. Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that what these schools mainly see is an out-of-state applicant.

It's not only mail. According to an analysis by Third Way, flagship admissions officers visit more out-of-state high schools than in-state. Third Way identified seven flagships that made twice as many out-of-state as in-state visits. And the schools they’re visiting tend to be private schools and publics in the wealthiest neighborhoods.

There are two reasons out-of-state students have become more important for flagships. First, budget cuts. According to last week’s annual report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 2022 marked the first rebound of state support of higher education past inflation-adjusted 2008 levels. The caveat is that’s the per student metric, and the denominator is down by a million. In aggregate, 28 states invest less in public colleges and universities than they did 15 years ago. Second, while state political leaders keep a close watch on in-state tuition, there’s no constituency for controlling out-of-state tuition, making it a Yankee Stadium free-for-all. As a result, flagships charge out-of-state students $20K more on average – a gap that ranges from a high of $38K (University of Michigan, followed closely by Virginia, Berkeley, and UW-Madison) to $15K (University of Wyoming, noting that the differential in both Dakotas is anomalously < $5K).

Last fall, Aaron Klein of Brookings published The Great Student Swap, an authoritative look at how state flagships have been raiding each other’s rich kids. Over the past 20 years, 48 of 50 flagships grew their share of out-of-state students; the average increase is an eye-watering 55%. As a result, Michigan is now 48% out-of-state, CU Boulder 44%, UW-Madison 40%, the list goes on…

While there are innumerable problems with family swapping, student swapping has at least five:

1. Flagships Don’t Have Room For Everyone
When flagships seat a party of wealthy Californians, there’s nowhere for locals to eat (and even more people hate Californians). So the corollary of increasing out-of-state enrollment is fewer spots for in-state students. Klein found an average decline of 15% and five states > 20%. University of Alabama in-state enrollment has fallen by half, from 75% to 38%. It might be fine if no in-state students wanted to enroll, but that couldn’t be further from the truth; Americans seem to have woken up to the fact that flagships that play faster sports than baseball on national television are better brands than all but a small handful of privates.

The coming of comfortable carpetbaggers changes campus composition. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation calculated University of Michigan undergraduate average family income at $200K, or about 4x the average Michigander. The Hechinger Report found 15 flagships with a 10%+ gap between the percentage of Black public high school graduates and Black freshmen enrolled. And student swapping filters down from flagships. Within the University of Wisconsin system, out-of-state enrollment has grown 63% in the past decade, displacing in-state students (-20%). Crowded out, at-risk students leave to dine at places where they’re less likely to want to complete their meal, and more likely to get sick.

2. Changing Schools For The Worse
While Michigan may still be a serious place, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation believes that when “ less prestigious public flagship universities” enroll more rich kids who “view college life as a continuing party,” the academic climate takes a turn for the worse. Students who don’t fit this profile “feel unwelcome for their academic effort and socially excluded for their lack of money.” So, in addition to taking up scarce seats, the Great Student Swap may contribute to depressed completion rates for the students states should care about most. If the Supreme Court ends affirmative action this month, it could end up being a rounding error relative to harm already inflicted from student swapping.

3. Reducing State Support
Another problem is reduced political support for state funding. In 2015, Ozan Jaquette and Bradley Curs correlated out-of-state enrollment and declining state support. This chicken-and-egg affair could go both ways: declining state support forcing flagships to enroll more out-of-state students. Or enrolling more out-of-state students reducing political support for public colleges. It’s likely a bit of both – a state school death spiral.

4. Increasing Student Debt
Klein correctly points out that as students eschew their own state schools for flagships in other states, they’re spending (and often borrowing) 3-4x more than they would have otherwise paid, likely for a comparable education. Klein took a close look at 16 flagships and calculated $57B in excess tuition costs from 2002 through 2018. Student swapping is America’s most expensive game of musical chairs.

5. Not Everyone Swaps Equally
Some flagships are more equal than others. West Virginia University competes hard in this game – yet another flagship with an out-of-state majority. But WVU needs to keep drawing wealthy students to north-central West Virginia, which isn’t for everyone, as demonstrated by projected continued enrollment declines and fiscal havoc. So for a handful of flagships, musical chairs may be more like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.


Is it possible to stop the swapping? Attentive states have employed three strategies:

1. Stop It Before It Starts
Two major flagships have sensibly refrained from mailing a paper monstrosity to Leo. The first is UNC-Chapel Hill, which has consistently maintained 82% in-state enrollment. How’s that possible? Because the system mandates it. In 1986, the system board capped out-of-state enrollment at 18%. If the flagship exceeds 18%, it gets fined by the system. So caps can work, except when they’re Rocky Mountain High ( CU Boulder’s cap is 45%), or when a flagship is capable of convincing state legislators to remove it ( UW-Madison, where out-of-state enrollments have doubled in a decade).

2. Give In-State Students A Chance
The other flagship that failed to make an appearance in our mailbox is UT Austin. UT remains around 90% in-state because Texas law requires it to admit the top 6% of graduates from each high school. This is the anachronistically named “Top 10 percent law” (it was 10% when the law was passed in 1997, now 6%). Top 10 percent increases diversity at UT Austin, but is far from perfect: reports of white students switching to schools with high populations of underrepresented minorities in an attempt to grab an automatic spot i.e., “negative action” the Supreme Court might want to look at next.

3. Bribe ‘Em
The third strategy is to throw money at the problem. California promised additional funding for the UC system (including both flagships) as long as in-state enrollment goes up and to the right. Based on the numbers – 5% more funding each year in return for 1% in-state enrollment growth – it appears UC got a great deal. Of course, UC didn’t promise to find the new students a place to live. That’s an additional charge.


If you’ve read this far, it’s undoubtedly to learn what happened to the family-swapping Yankees. As mentioned, not everyone swaps equally. While Fritz and Susanne lived happily ever after, Mike got the wrong end of the trade. He soon broke up with Marilyn and was traded to Cleveland. Then to add insult to injury, he lost his Cleveland roster spot and went off to pitch in Japan. Who replaced him on the Cleveland pitching staff? Fritz, living with Mike’s family. Decades later, Mike remained so bitter about the whole thing that he refused to cooperate with a Matt Damon and Ben Affleck film – “The Trade” – stalling the project indefinitely to the detriment of swapping scholars.

There are two major drawbacks to swapping. First, it’s scandalous. Second, it doesn’t work. And for flagships, it’s probably going to get worse. Last week, Bain released a dire financial forecast for America’s colleges and universities, exempting only the most highly selective privates. Bain had this to say about flagships: “While we do not expect them to fail given their scale, public support, and options for cutting costs and generating new revenue, we do expect many will need to make foundational changes to offset potential deficits.”

Here's one foundational change: dramatically expand capacity. The top flagships have been growing undergraduate enrollment, but only at the rate of population growth. And that’s not nearly enough when everyone and his brother wants to attend. As a result, as Urban Institute’s Tomas Monarrez told Hechinger Report, they’re “behaving basically like an Ivy League institution when it comes to admissions.”

Why aren’t flagships creating more seats? While not technically a flagship, under the leadership of President Michael Crow, Arizona State University has taken up the mantle of America’s most innovative university. By adding or expanding campuses and schools, President Crow has grown on-campus enrollment 43%. Meanwhile, ASU attracts more National Merit Scholars than all but four flagships. Success has fed on success as donors want to be part of the ASU story, funding additional growth. By adding capacity, flagships can generate more in-state revenue, excitement, philanthropy, and perhaps state appropriations, thereby reducing the need for swapping for universities, and ultimately applicants. Expansion is the only no-regrets swap-stopping strategy.

Swapping rich kids is a crutch keeping flagships from fulfilling their missions and serving their states. It's not only time for the swapping to stop, ‘tis also the season. As a result of a series of rule changes, baseball is a lot less languid than it used to be. And if America’s pastime can change, less-than-agile flagships can do the same as long as they put their heart into it.

Whether they’ll put their heart into it is hard to say; I’m no Joan Quigley, or even Thurman Munson. I suppose at the end of the day, the heart wants what the heart wants. Which is OK as long as what the heart wants isn’t a teammate’s wife and family.