As they prepare for expected declines in their states' college-age population, New England public colleges are ramping up recruitment across the country in the hunt for students to fill seats once earmarked for native sons and daughters.
Projections show that the number of high school graduates over the next decade will drop 17 percent in Vermont, 16 percent in Maine, and 11 percent in New Hampshire. States in southern, more urban, New England face less dramatic change: Massachusetts anticipates a 5 percent dip; Connecticut and Rhode Island both 3 percent.
The population decline, attributed in part to the end of baby-boomer child-rearing years, has thrust New England schools into fierce competition for students, according to college officials and higher education analysts. The scramble is particularly pronounced for public colleges and universities that tend to have larger local student enrollments.
''It's not an unexpected blip," said Sharon Oliver, director of admissions at the University of Maine in Orono. ''We are just thinking about the best way to handle it."
This year the University of Maine dispatched a recruiter to Chicago, hoping to tap a large college-going population undaunted by winter weather. The University of Vermont, repeating an effort it began last year, is hosting at its Burlington campus guidance counselors from high schools in cities such as Denver and San Francisco, where prospective students might be drawn to UVM's extensive outdoor activities.
Others have begun looking more aggressively in regional pockets.
The University of New Hampshire recently intensified its recruitment of the burgeoning populations of minority students from New Bedford, Lowell, and Lawrence.
Massachusetts, facing a less precipitous decline but at the same time challenged by recruitment of its students by northern neighbors, is also planning for the lean years. For the first time, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is sending direct mail to sophomores, both in state and out of state, not just juniors, in hope of piquing their interest before other schools reach them.
For New England, where higher education is a major industry, the prospective decline in the high-school population is a possible blow to both the region's identity and economy. Moreover, the move to expand college recruiting beyond traditional locales could also leave some schools with less local flavor.
State schools say they will remain loyal to their in-state students, with some devising plans to make more merit-based financial aid available for local high school graduates who might otherwise have gone to an out-of-state college.
Others are seeking to tap students who might not have considered a four-year college. That demographic is particularly attractive in Vermont and Maine, which have the region's lowest matriculation rates.
Expanding recruiting efforts aimed at home-grown students could pay greater dividends than mining an out-of-state population, said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. For one, out-of-state recruiting is costly, because public schools often lack a far-flung army of alumni to act as recruiters. Also, she said, local students tend to remain in the state and enter the local economy, providing a needed source for the state's workforce.
''It's definitely in the best interest of the state," Finney said.
Increasing out-of-state enrollment also runs the risk of appearing not to provide services first and foremost to taxpaying residents, said Michael Thomas, senior vice president of the New England Board of Higher Education.
Yet regional and national demographics make out-of-state recruitment a necessity. The local declines of high school graduates contrast starkly with the growing high school graduate populations anticipated in Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and California.
In those states, the immigrant pool is believed to be offsetting the declines expected at the end of the baby boomer childbearing years, according to analysts at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which used birth rates to estimate the future high school population.
Out-of-state students offer immediate monetary rewards in the form of higher tuition rates, something long relied on by public flagships in New England, where state funding of higher education lags behind the national average.
At UNH, in-state students pay $9,778 in tuition and fees, which is $11,720 less than an out-of-state student. At the University of Vermont, out-of-state students pay $23,638, more than twice the in-state tuition of $9,452.
At UMass-Amherst, residents pay $9,278; out-of-state undergraduates pay $18,397.
Marjorie Smith, a New Hampshire legislator who is a member of the education division of the House Finance Committee, said low state funding means that UNH must ''depend upon out-of-state student tuition." But, she added, ''if we cannot keep those college graduates in the state, then we have nothing to offer employers who are looking for well-educated employees."
The University of New Hampshire in Durham, for example, is grappling with the issue. It has 11,000 undergraduates, of whom 59 percent are in-state residents; 41 percent are from out of state. But those proportions are expected to even out as the school increases efforts to recruit in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey to offset declining enrollment from New Hampshire as well as from Massachusetts, which has supplied the school with 20 percent of its students.
''There has always been a clear commitment to serve the residents of New Hampshire, so we will do everything possible to ensure that qualified New Hampshire residents can come here," said Robert McGann, director of admissions at UNH. ''But we do have to rely to some degree on out-of-state tuition."
The University of Vermont in Burlington has long had a larger out-of-state contingent, mostly from New England and the mid-Atlantic region. But the school, which receives among the lowest state funding amounts in the country, expanded its recruiting this year to San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver and is considering Austin, Texas, and Atlanta for its next move.
''Our strategy is to become a more national university," said Don Honeman, dean of admissions at UVM.