In a little less than three months, Kaitlyn Ryan will start college at Oklahoma State University. When she does, she'll be moving to a campus she's never seen in person, in a state she's never visited.
Ryan will be coming to OSU from her home in Snelling, Calif., a town in Merced County in the agriculture-rich Central Valley. With a population just shy of 300, Snelling is a far cry from the urban areas elsewhere in the state, she said.
But with a collection of strong universities much closer to her home, Ryan said it's a fair question why she would want to move about 1,600 miles for college.
“My mom is wondering the same thing,” she said.
When she begins school, Ryan, 18, plans to major in animal sciences. She doesn't know exactly where that will take her, she said, but she likes the fact that OSU has a strong veterinary program, in case she decides to go that route.
“I don't know what kind of career path I want,” she said. “It's definitely going to be in an agriculture field.”
As far as the distance is concerned, Ryan said she finds the idea appealing. She's always liked traveling and seeing different parts of the country, she said. Moving to Stillwater for school gives her the chance to stretch her legs a bit.
“It just made a perfect fit for me, I think,” she said.
Influx of students
When she arrives in Oklahoma, Ryan will join a growing number of students like her. Although final numbers are still months away, both OSU and the University of Oklahoma are predicting an increase in the number of incoming freshmen they will receive from California in the fall.
California's higher education system is one marked by instability and skyrocketing costs over the past year. In 2011, California led the country in tuition and fee increases. Since then, student protesters have clashed with police during demonstrations against tuition increases.
According to The College Board's annual “Trends in College Pricing” report, public four-year schools in California saw an average tuition hike of 21 percent last year. Public two-year colleges saw an average increase of 37 percent.
That figure is sharply higher than the national trend. Nationwide, public four-year colleges increased their tuition and fees by 7 percent, with two-year schools increasing their rates by 7.4 percent. In Oklahoma, tuition and fees at public colleges and universities rose by an average of 5.9 percent last year.
Historically, the out-of-state population at Oklahoma's two research universities has been dominated by students from Texas. Last year, Texans made up 66.8 percent of the out-of-state total at OSU. At OU, that figure was 60.2 percent.
Although Californians aren't set to overtake Texas anytime soon, OSU officials have already seen an increase over last year in the number of applicants from California.
As of May 19, the university had admitted 153 freshmen from California, up from 106 at the same time in 2011. The university also has seen an increase in the number of applicants — 241 California students had applied to OSU on May 19, up from 156 at the same time in 2011.
Those figures don't take into account other less-predictable factors, like how many of the students OSU admits will wind up enrolling in the fall. But officials expect that bump in applications to translate into an increase in the overall number of new freshmen from California.
California isn't the only area of growth. The university also has seen an increase in the number of applicants from Illinois, he said, particularly from the Chicago area, said Kyle Wray, OSU's vice president for enrollment and marketing. In general, he said those students come seeking degrees in areas in which OSU is particularly strong, like fire protection, engineering and agriculture.
OSU has ramped up its recruitment efforts in California and Chicago in recent years, Wray said.
But part of the appeal OSU holds for California students may be more cultural and historical.
Connection to state
During the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Oklahomans streamed to California looking for work.
Today's college students are only two or three generations removed from those Oklahomans, he said, meaning many of them feel a connection to the state, even if they've never been to Oklahoma themselves.
“It's not a foreign land,” he said.
“They've been here and know what it's like.”
A similar trend exists at OU. Last year, OU enrolled 36 new freshmen from California. This year, OU already has enrolled 11 incoming California freshmen and has 32 prospective California students with enrollment appointments, said Matt Hamilton, OU's registrar and vice president for admissions.
“And it is still relatively early,” Hamilton said. “It appears that our yield from California will be significantly better.”
Like their counterpart in Stillwater, OU is also seeing growth in the number of students it receives from the Chicago area, Hamilton said.
There also appears to be growth in students coming from the Kansas City area, he said.
However, the influx from Chicago and Kansas City is at least partially because of stepped-up recruiting efforts in those areas, Hamilton said.
That isn't the case in California — OU doesn't have a recruiter on the ground there, and Hamilton said he doesn't think the university had a presence at any recruiting programs in California this year.
Although OU hasn't taken steps to cultivate its presence in California, Hamilton said that effort seems to be taking care of itself.
OU has a strong alumni presence in California, he said. So many high school students in California may have never been to Oklahoma, but they know about OU through parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who graduated from there.
Growth in those specific areas runs contrary to the trend across the university, Hamilton said.
Although the university won't have final numbers until later this year, early indicators seem to show that OU's out-of-state enrollment will be down from last year. Meanwhile, he said, OU might see its largest in-state freshman class in university history.
“It's been kind of a mixed bag, as it typically is,” Hamilton said. “It's still speculation at this point.”