Episode 66: Geography Determines College-Going Behavior–Again

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This is our eleventh episode focusing on news stories about higher education, and yet it returns to a theme of many USACollegeChat episodes. That theme is the geography of college-going behavior by graduating high school students. I think we are starting to sound like a broken record on this topic, and yet it is so important for parents to recognize and deal with.

Today’s story revisits this theme that we addressed seriously and at length in our nationwide virtual tour of public and private colleges and universities in every state in the U.S.

Geography Determines College-Going Behavior—Again 1. The Geography Statistics You Should Know

You all might recall that the reason we took you on that tour was one simple statistic: About 70 percent of high school students go to college in their home states. We speculated about reasons for that remarkably high number: familiarity on the part of kids and families, concern within families about sending kids too far from home, financial concerns, and familiarity on the part of high school counselors, just to name some. We were sorry (and still are) that kids were missing out on all kinds of opportunities—public and private, expensive and not, traditional and wildly innovative, liberal arts and technical—because they were not leaving home. We thought that giving kids and families more information could help.

A new report just out might call that strategy into question.

Published by the American Council on Education and written by Nicholas Hillman (Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Taylor Weichman (a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison), the report is entitled Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century. The report makes lots of interesting points, but the bottom line, from our point of view, is this: Geography matters. (We would add, “And that’s too bad.”)

One statistic that the authors quote from other research is something that we will now add to our own arsenal of statistics about college choice. That new statistic is this: About 57 percent of incoming freshmen at public four-year colleges attend a college within 50 miles of home. Now, let’s be clear. The statistic is not that 57 percent of high school graduates go to four-year public colleges within 50 miles of home. But rather, 57 percent of freshmen at four-year public colleges have come from no more than 50 miles away. Think about it from a freshman’s point of view. If you are a freshman standing on a four-year public college campus, more than half of your classmates live within 50 miles of where you are standing.

We often say that colleges seem to want geographic diversity in their student bodies and that they seek freshmen from other states (and, indeed, from other countries), proudly advertising on their own websites their enrollment figures about how many states and how many foreign countries their students come from. Well, now you see why.

For those freshmen standing on those four-year public college campuses, it’s almost like being in high school or in a local community college—especially when a fair number of your high school classmates enrolled at your four-year public college, too.

2. Is Knowledge the Solution?

In their new report, the authors make an interesting point about some federal initiatives designed to improve students’ access to colleges, like the new College Scorecard (which we have not talked about yet) and College Navigator, which we have talked a great deal about. You might recall that College Navigator is an online service of the National Center for Education Statistics and that it provides all kinds of useful data about any college you enter into its search function—data like enrollments, graduation rates, profiles of newly admitted students, typically broken down by gender and by race/ethnicity. In fact, we have done whole episodes about those kinds of data and about how helpful we think they are. We have said that College Navigator is one more source of information to help high school seniors figure out where to apply and perhaps one more source of information for high school seniors to look at in making a decision about where to enroll. But maybe giving students and their families more information—even highly relevant and valuable information—is not nearly enough.

So here is the question that the authors investigate: Is college choice a result of having information and knowledge about colleges or a result of the location of a college—with location meaning one close or even closest to home—and what happens when there aren’t any colleges close to home? Here are a few findings from other research, presented by the authors (you can follow up on the details by looking at the full report):

  • The farther a kid lives from a college, the less likely the kid is to enroll.
  • The college decisions of kids from wealthier homes are less affected by home-to-college distance.
  • The college decisions of kids from working-class homes and the college decisions of kids of color are most affected by home-to-college distance.
  • Family duties and cultural traditions keep some kids closer to home for college—especially black, Latino, and Native American kids.
  • Kids in rural communities, who often have strong community ties, tend to stay closer to home for college.
  • Having a college close to home is associated with a high level of college enrollment (I would say, because it’s right there, and what could be easier).

None of these statistics is surprising, given both what we have talked about in earlier episodes and, indeed, given your own common sense. Not surprising, but maybe still concerning.

3. What Are “Education Deserts”?

The authors go on to talk about “education deserts,” which they define as communities with no colleges or universities located nearby or communities with only one nearby community college to provide a place for students who need a public institution with reasonable admission standards (with “reasonable admission standards” defined as admitting more than 75 percent of applicants). Just as there are “food deserts,” they say, where access to healthy, fresh food is unavailable in some low-income neighborhoods and perhaps especially in low-income neighborhoods of color, so there are education deserts, where families do not have easy enough access to public higher education.

I get the point, parents, and I believe you do, too. No one wants unnecessarily limited choice for students who need to keep costs down or need to stay close to home for other reasons—at least at the beginning of their college careers. But I wish that the solution could be to help students make the physical and perhaps social-emotional-psychological trip to a college farther away—and maybe even out of state.

4. What Should You Do?

Like the National Center for Education Statistics and its College Navigator or like the Obama administration’s College Scorecard, I would like to think that providing important information about colleges would be enough to help students make that trip. I would like to think that the information provided in our nationwide virtual tour of colleges would be enough to help students make that trip. But, evidently, it isn’t. Furthermore, the report offers the insight that even financial support, which so many kids need desperately, sometimes does not outweigh the power of geography.

So, what is the solution? Is it to build more colleges—ideally public colleges with reasonable admission standards—in areas where none exist? Is it to build more campuses of state public higher education systems (though maybe not the flagship system, with its higher admission standards) to pick up the abundance of students looking for a nearby college to call home? Is it to encourage colleges that already exist—at least public colleges—to consider the geographic region they are in and work harder to serve more of the students in it or close to it?

A lot of that sounds expensive to me, and a lot of that sounds as though it could take a long time to happen. Colleges can’t be built overnight, and college policies and practices can’t be changed overnight, either.

So, for now, Marie and I are here at USACollegeChat, and we are going to keep giving you information about colleges far and wide. We are going to keep encouraging you and your high schooler to think about the information. We are going to keep asking you and your high schooler to keep an open mind about leaving your state for the right opportunity. We are going to keep advising that geography does not need to be the first deal breaker on your list of things that would keep you from sending your high schooler to a college that is a perfect fit.

A college in another state might be the best chance your high schooler gets to go somewhere reasonably safe and reasonably well protected to live and learn with peers that are all not exactly like he or she is. Personally, I would like to take the child out of the desert rather than improve the desert. I don’t think it is a popular opinion, but it is mine. Call me if you want to chat about it.

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