Albuquerque Journal

Tuition exchange



Leaving California to go to college was not necessaril­y an option that George Ayala thought was available to him while attending high school in Tustin in Orange County.

At least, not until a University of New Mexico recruiter explained the benefits of the Western Undergradu­ate Exchange program.

The program — which is celebratin­g its 30th academic year — is a multi-lateral, regional agreement-and-tuition discountin­g program overseen by the Boulder, Colo.-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Under the program, a resident of any of the 15 participat­ing states may attend college in one of those same 15 states as well as the U.S. Territorie­s of the Commonweal­th of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam at a rate of 1½ times — or sometimes even less — the college’s in-state-resident tuition rate, says Margo Colalancia, director for Student Exchange for the Commission.

“It helps (the states) achieve their enrollment goals on several levels,” she says. “The savings can entice nonresiden­t students to enroll in difficult-to-fill majors. They can also elect to offer the WUE discounted

tuition to only the most academical­ly qualified applicants, to attract the brightest students in the region, which also boosts their graduation and retention rates.”

Such was the case with Ayala, who qualified for the best discount New Mexico offered.

“That really was one of the deciding factors,” he says of the decision to attend the University of New Mexico.

The program also helps students intermingl­e.

“WUE also helps them diversify their student body; the more regional and ethnically diverse their students are, the richer the learning experience for all,” Colalancia says. “Some institutio­ns also use WUE to attract academical­ly qualified athletes in the region. Finally, some graduates will probably remain in the state where they received their degree, and become part of the

local workforce. For states looking to grow their workforce, that’s a plus.”

For Ayala, “it all started my sophomore year of high school,” he says. The recruiter “explained all of the benefits of coming to UNM. And that stuck with me, from my sophomore year of high school. He explained about WUI and WUI-plus, the (grade-point average) they were looking for and the ACT score they were looking for.”

Now a New Mexico senior studying finance at the Anderson School of Business, Ayala and his family have saved $16,000 per academic year

under UNM’s WUI-plus program.

“That was a huge factor,” he says of the savings potential. “Looking at other schools in other states and California, crunching the number all together, it was still cheaper at UNM with having a meal plan and living on the campus.”

Ayala was not alone in leaving California to study elsewhere, Colalancia says.

In the 2016-17 school year, some 17,000 California­ns decided to leave the state for college under the program, she says, representi­ng the biggest exodus from any individual state participat­ing in the program.

In the last academic year, New Mexico sent 650 students to other states and those students saved almost $5 million or about $7,600 each versus out-ofstate tuition, Colalancia says.

Overall, almost 39,000 students participat­ed last academic year, saving $341.5 million, she says.

There are 159 two- and four-year colleges across the participat­ing states enrolled in the program, each of which has its own guidelines on criteria for accepting students into the program, Colalancia says.

Given its small staff, the commission has to rely on high school guidance counselors and academic advisers, as well as recruiters like those from UNM, to get the word out about the program.

From there, the best resource for students is the program website:, Colalancia says.

Researchin­g which institutio­ns support the proposed major of the student is important, she says, as well as checking the requiremen­ts for high school GPAs and SAT and ACT scores.

“The other thing is apply early,” she says. “Because some institutio­ns have a cap on the number of discounts given out in any particular year so you want to be in there before they reach their cap. I’d be looking at possibilit­ies during the junior year and then over that next summer, I would be looking to applying for it.”

One of the great things about the program, Colalancia says, is earned academic or athletic scholarshi­ps are not affected and can even be used by the colleges as an additional enticement to make the school even more affordable.

Some, but not all, fouryear colleges tend to cap the tuition discount at four years, she says, which has the added benefit of encouragin­g students to finish their undergradu­ate degree quickly.

“Students are really motivated to finish,” Colalancia says. “Colorado State University did a study and found their four-year completion rate is much higher than their resident students.”

Ayala, however, is just happy he found out about the program.

“I probably would have stayed in state,” he says. “I was accepted at Cal Fullerton so I probably would have gone there because it was close by to my house. But I just loved the Albuquerqu­e vibe and I loved the architectu­re of the university. But the number-one reason I decided to come here was the WUE.”


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