The mecca of American pastiche filled the horizon as the Baumanns drove south from their home state of New Jersey: billboards, a village of tchotchke shops and, above it all, a saucer-like sombrero in fading Technicolor.
They'd come a long way from the Garden State.
The sight of South of the Border was among Jeff Baumann's first impressions of South Carolina as his family took the two older brothers to college at the University of South Carolina and Furman University.
All three of the Baumann boys would one day pursue higher education in South Carolina — Jeff is now a senior studying mass communication at USC. They joined a mass migration that happens every fall as some public universities in South Carolina bring an increasing share of out-of-state students into the dorms, including many from Northeastern states.
But the influx of out of state students at South Carolina's schools — especially USC, where such students make up about 42 percent of its newest class — is drawing increased scrutiny from state lawmakers and others who may push for new policies.
On one level, going to USC was an economic decision for Jeff. Thanks to academic scholarships, Jeff spends less to attend USC than he would have at Rutgers University in his home state. USC applies a sliding scale for out-of-state tuition so that some students pay as much as $16,181, while the highest-achieving students can earn discounted rates all the way down to $6,131, the same rate as a native South Carolinian.
Beyond the financial incentive, Jeff came to appreciate the Palmetto State for its contrast to his home. He likes the racial and political diversity among the 34,000 students at his Columbia campus.
"It got me out of my comfort zone," he said. "I’ve met people who have different opinions than I do, have different life experiences."
The big shift
The University of South Carolina has undergone a quiet shift in the past two decades. Out-of-state students, who made up 19 percent of the student body in 1997, grew to 42 percent in 2016, according to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
Elsewhere, Coastal Carolina University passed a threshold in 2015 when the number of out-of-state students eclipsed the number of in-state ones for the first time since at least 1997.
Low in-state tuition rates and scholarships funded by the S.C. Education Lottery create an incentive for South Carolina students to stay in the state, but there is no uniform approach to recruiting. The state has no law on the books governing how many seats should be reserved for South Carolinians.
That could change.
State senators have formed a committee to look into the issue, and there could be legislation on the topic next year, said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia.
"What concerns me perhaps a whole lot is this year’s incoming freshman class, which is about 50 percent out of state," he said. "When you also find out some of the discounts given to out of state students, that’s a concern that not only I have but many of my colleagues also said they share those concerns."
One contrast to USC is the University of North Carolina system, where the Board of Governors has set an 18 percent cap on out-of-state enrollment for every freshman class since 1986. While the policy has ensured plenty of seats for native Tar Heels, it has hamstrung the school financially: A recent analysis by UNC found that it could bring in up to $238 million a year in additional revenue if it removed the cap.
At USC, the shift to admit more out-of-state students was a conscious decision.
"The short answer for why that has happened is cuts in state funding," said USC spokesman Wes Hickman.
South Carolina's public support for universities had been dwindling for years when lawmakers slashed funding in the early years of the Great Recession — and never restored them to their previous levels. State appropriations made up about 20 percent of USC's budget in 2008. Today, they make up about 10 percent.
To balance its budget, USC hiked its tuition and started recruiting heavily from wealthier states, including many in the Northeast, where some families can afford the full price. Today, the university employs 15 out-of-state admissions representatives and six in-state.
Most states tightened their belts during the recession, but few were as drastic as South Carolina. Assessing the wreckage in 2014, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated that South Carolina had cut a larger percentage of funding per college pupil since 2008 than any other state except Arizona and Louisiana.
Hickman said he welcomes a conversation with lawmakers about in-state enrollment numbers, but that it will have to be accompanied by a conversation about public spending.
"Our current model is broken," he said. "The model of shifting the burden away from the state and onto students and their families can’t survive in the long term."
Not every university in South Carolina has seen an uptick in students from outside the state. The share at Clemson University and the College of Charleston has hovered just above one-third since 1997. Admissions officials at both schools say they aim to have in-state students make up about two-thirds of each incoming class, although there is no hard and fast rule.
And The Citadel, which had more out-of-state students than in-state from 2000 through 2011, saw its out-of-state figure drop off in more recent years.
"Our out-of-state student mix is driven by ROTC scholarships and the military's need for officers," said Citadel Provost Connie Book. "That is a dynamic number driven by global conditions and military spending."
Chuck Knepfle, associate vice president for enrollment management at Clemson, said that while his school depends on out-of-state students to keep tuition costs down for in-state students, he wants to keep the university a majority in-state institution.
"I personally think it’s the right move," Knepfle said.
The state's Commission on Higher Education has little authority in the area, but its interim executive director Jeff Schilz said the changing student mixes raise several policy questions — not only what's the ideal percent of out-of-state students but also how this affects African-American enrollment, how other state colleges are impacted and more.
"Over time, the higher education system in the state has organically evolved," he said, "and now a lot of people are scratching their heads asking ‘Is this really where we want to be?’ and, more importantly, 'Is this sustainable?'”