While on a road trip touring college campuses, Bryan Marco of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., threw in a last-minute stop at the University of Pittsburgh and was pleasantly surprised.
He liked the campus. He liked the city. And once he applied, he liked how quickly the school said 'yes.'
"Pitt was the first school I heard back from," said Mr. Marco, who applied to a half-dozen campuses.
Now a 20-year-old rising senior and philosophy major, he is part of a demographic that is altering the makeup of many of America's public universities.
Out-of-state students and those recruited internationally account for almost half the total enrollment at some universities and, in certain years, as high as the 75 percent share of the freshman class reported by the University of Vermont last fall.
At Pitt, in-state students make up 69 percent of the school's main campus population, a share that is down from 79 percent a decade ago, and they are 74 percent of the university's total population, compared with 82 percent a decade ago.
Penn State University has seen a similar shift, with the percentage of Pennsylvanians in its total enrollment slipping to 73 percent from 82 percent a decade ago; on the main campus, that figure has shifted to 64 percent from 71 percent in 2001.
Out-of-state and international students long have been seen as a means to diversify a school's student body and, in states like Pennsylvania, as a way to offset the declining pool of in-state high school graduates.
But experts say that with states across the nation slashing education budgets, these students increasingly are valued for another reason: the $10,000 and even $20,000 extra they offer by paying full-price tuition.
Penn State and Pitt say that's not their motivation.
Penn State says the $11,864 extra that out-of-state students pay yearly in base undergraduate tuition is not why their ranks are growing, nor is the school seeking them out to offset state funding cuts in recent years, including this spring's proposal to slash public university support by up to one half.
Rather, spokesman Geoff Rushton cited such factors as fewer traditional-age college bound students from Pennsylvania, a previous shortage of international students that Penn State moved to fill and the university's reputation that attracts many applicants from afar.
"Penn State has done very well in improving its national and international reputation," he said. "We receive applications from all over the country and the world because of that."
He said Penn State does not consider residency in its admission decisions and has not reduced its in-state recruiting.
Pitt, where non-residents pay $9,656 extra a year in base undergraduate tuition, noted its increasing applicant draw beyond the state's borders, too, and said even with the shift, the percentage of Pennsylvanians enrolled remains high.
"No single factor has been more important in the increased number of out-of-state students at Pitt than the university's growing reputation," it said in a written statement.
Pitt said students in an increasingly mobile world need exposure to others from different places. Though the enrollment shift there appears to date back a decade, Pitt said the majority occurred from 2007 as in-state graduation numbers weakened.
In many parts of the nation, experts say, worsening finances have put nonresident students higher up in recruiting strategies of public universities of all kinds.
"There has been a concerted effort on the part of many public institutions to increase the proportion of out-of-state and international students to offset declines in state support," said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the Washington D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
He said the move is a logical one for budget-battered campuses, though it can be politically dicey.
"In most cases they try to keep it pretty quiet because they don't want to draw the ire of legislators or the governor by making it seem it's being done at the expense of in-state students," said Donald Heller, director of Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education.
Presumably, he said, it could be argued that a seat given to a non-resident might mean an in-state student lost out.
The visibility of out-of-state students varies widely by campus. At some schools, including leading research and land-grant universities, the share can be 30 percent or higher, Mr. Heller said. Other schools have closer to 5 percent.
The University of California, having weathered layoffs, program consolidations and other cuts, is out to raise the 6 percent share of non-resident students across its system to as much as 10 percent to help deal with lost state support. The latest proposed cut would slash anywhere from $500 million to $ 1 billion, said UCal spokesman Ricardo Vazquez.
"There is no question that non-residents bring in additional revenues to the campuses that can be used to do things such as hire more faculty and increase course sections," he said. "The reality is non-Californians pay on average $22,000 more than Californians."
Arizona's Board of Regents likewise has temporarily raised the 30 percent cap on out-of-state students to 40 percent to help that state's universities shore up their finances. Since 2008, per-student appropriations in that state have been cut by $428 million or 50 percent, Regents spokeswoman Katie Paquet said.
For the first time ever, the University of Iowa enrolled a freshman class last fall of which more than half, 54 percent, came from out of state. Of its total enrollment, 42 percent are from another state or another country.
The school continues to admit all qualified Iowans, spokesman Tom Moore said, but it also had to adapt its recruiting approach since Iowa, like other rural Midwestern states, does not have enough high school graduates. Another factor is the $118 million in state cuts to Iowa's universities over the last three years.
Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Pell Institute, said governments for 30 years have been retreating from their investment in public higher education. So the shift in emphasis to students able to pay full price is predictable.
"There's no fairy godmother printing money to run public universities," he said.
Still, he argues, schools ought to be worrying more about poor students who surveys show are disappearing from the nation' leading universities. He doesn't buy the argument that an out-of-state student affluent enough to pay full freight really represents diversity.
"A kid from India, sure," he said. "But I don't know that wealthy kids from an adjacent state look any different than a wealthy kid from in-state."
Along with being more affluent as a group, non-residents tend to be stronger academically, and thus can help a school's climb in college rankings, Mr. Heller said.
Pitt has nearly 36,000 students, up from about 31,000 in the mid 1990s. Enrollment data suggests that growth was built largely on non-residents.
In a written statement, Pitt noted that total in-state enrollment is 421 students higher than in 1996 and in-state undergraduate enrollment is up by 627 from that year. Enrollment data indicates that during that same period, total non-resident enrollment grew by 3,918 and non-resident undergraduates increased by 2,647.
Total in-state enrollment is 1,120 fewer than in 2001, even though overall enrollment grew by 2,190 students.
Some say the real issue is not the share of non-resident students, but where they settle after graduation. George Mason University President Alan Merten said if most out-of-state students year after year take their degree and move out of state, "that's not healthy." But if a state university can woo out-of-staters with a college education, and then can get them to settle as productive citizens, "that's a good deal."
Bill Schackner:email@example.com or 412-263-1977.