Updated: May 27, 2020
Most public college students enroll within 50 miles of home, so location is more influential than policy makers think, a new study finds.
By Ellen Wexler // February 3, 2016
If only tuition were lower, and high school students were armed with better data. That’s the idea that has guided the policy discussion about college access and affordability: to make better enrollment decisions, the story goes, students need money and information.
But that narrative misses an important point about how students make decisions: for many students, where they go to college depends largely on where they live, according to a study commissioned by the American Council on Education.
The majority of incoming freshmen attending public four-year colleges and universities enroll within 50 miles of their home, the study found. And the farther students live from any particular college, the less likely they are to enroll.
“The zip code that a child is born into oftentimes determines their life chances,” said Nick Hillman, an author of the study and assistant professor of education leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Place matters because it reinforces existing inequalities.”
At public four-year colleges, the median distance students live from home is 18 miles. That number is 46 miles for private nonprofit four-year colleges, and only eight miles at public two-year colleges.
But when it comes to college choice, Hillman thinks geography is overlooked. Policy makers focus too much on expanding students’ awareness of their possible choices, he said, without realizing that students’ options are already limited.
The study points to tools like the College Scorecard, which are intended to help students make informed, thoughtful decisions about where to enroll. But if a student needs to stay close to her family, what will she gain by learning that the perfect institution is hundreds of miles away?
“The conversation pretty much ends with, ‘Hey, get better information in the hands of students,’” Hillman said. “But the way that prospective students use information is very different depending on what kinds of students you're looking at.”
The crux of the problem is a misalignment of expectations: from policy makers’ perspective, students would attend college at whatever institution is best for them. But for some students, location is nonnegotiable -- and often, that means their options are dramatically limited.
For upper-class students, having more information might help; they have the flexibility to travel, and they can afford to shop around. But it isn’t enough for working-class students, who may need to choose from the options available nearby.
“Most of the conversations today overlooks the working-class student and prioritizes the upper-class student,” Hillman said. “It’s just really frustrating from the academic side -- and even more frustrating from a policy angle.”
And for working-class students who want to stay close to home, what happens when there aren’t any colleges nearby? No matter how well-informed these students are, they don’t end up with many options.