Going Away to College? School Distance as a Barrier to Higher Education

By Abigail Wozniak·March 22, 2018
University of Notre Dame

The Issue:

Geographic location is an important factor in determining not just where, but whether, a high school senior goes on to college. For those who live far from a higher-education institution, the costs of moving across state or county lines are large, and often go far beyond direct travel or start-up adjustment costs. About one in six American high school seniors lack access to a nearby college, at either the two- or four-year level. However, the role of geography is overlooked in many higher education funding decisions. Access to college education is especially important today because of its large returns and the role that Associate or Bachelor degrees can play in allowing young people to raise themselves from low-income situations.
Geographic location is an important factor in determining not just where, but whether, a high school senior goes on to college.

The Facts:

  • The share of students who attend college close to home is large and has increased over the past quarter century. The majority — 56.2 percent — of public four-year college students attend an institution under an hour’s drive away, and nearly 70 percent attend within two hours of their home, according to the latest Higher Education Research Institute’s CIRP survey (see chart). The share of college students attending nearby institutions has grown steadily since 1990, when closer to a third — 37.9 percent — of four-year public college students attended within 50 miles of home. The reasons for this are not known with certainty, but this change may reflect two other trends over this period. The first is a rising share of high school seniors attending college. Students on the margin of attending may be more likely to choose a nearby institution. The second is a widespread decline in the rate at which people move to different states and counties in the United States. Geographic mobility has been declining for a broad set of Americans, but absolute declines have been largest for young individuals, since they had higher initial migration rates to begin with.
  • An important share, about 1 in 6, high school seniors lack a nearby college. This number is harder to calculate than might be expected, but different approaches give similar estimates. One approach is to use data based on the U.S. Department of Education IPEDS (and assembled by the Equality of Opportunity project) to measure whether a county has a two- or four-year institution within its borders. By this measure, 58 percent of counties — containing 14 percent of the U.S. population — lack local college access. A limitation of this measure is that branch campuses in some state systems report their data to IPEDS in combination with a central institution, leading to an undercount of colleges in some counties. However, a different measure is to look at the share of high school seniors who live outside metropolitan areas or suburbs in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. These students make up about 18 percent of high school students. Hence by different measures, about 1 in 6 high school seniors lack access to a local college at any level.
  • What do we know about how distance affects the decision to go to college? The role of college geography was dramatically illustrated by a recent study of the enrollment effects of expansions to California’s public university systems by Patrick Lapid. Between 1995 and 2005, the California systems (both California State and University of California) added four new universities. Lapid found that enrollment in these new universities came predominantly from new enrollments from high schools within 25 miles of a new campus. System enrollment from other high schools was essentially unchanged. This suggests that for some students, the presence of a local college is key to their attendance. This relationship between college proximity and college attendance holds after taking into account other individual and family differences. Previous studies had come to similar conclusions. For instance, David Card found that the presence of a four-year college in a respondent’s county of residence was strongly related to college attendance for young men of college-going age in the 1960s and 1970s, even after taking into account many family factors. Using a quasi-experimental approach, Janet Currie and Enrico Moretti found that opening new two- and four-year colleges in a county generates an increase in college attainment among county residents.
  • Costs to relocation appear to go well beyond the direct costs of travel, based on estimates from other settings. Many studies of relocation patterns find that long-distance moves appear costly in a way that cannot be explained by direct moving costs (see here). In general, many people are reluctant to move over long distances even when there are large financial benefits to doing so. Young adults are no different, although they are more mobile than older adults. Despite these large implied costs of moving, most loan and grant programs that seek to expand access to education give the greatest emphasis to covering tuition and other direct costs but do not factor in the differential costs that students face depending on where they live. “Cost of attendance” formulas that are used to determine total college costs factor in expenses for holiday and term break travel home, as well as local housing, but allowances are not made for less quantifiable costs. Such costs might include adjusting to a new community or climate, or the costs of acquiring new location-specific expertise, such as how to access needed services. Some scholarship programs have arisen to address the unique needs of students who are likely to have little local access to college. These include the Robinson Scholars Program at the University of Kentucky, which provides generous support to first-generation college students from a subset of Kentucky counties, and the Buffett Scholars Program in Nebraska, which provides generous scholarships to Nebraska high school seniors attending in-state two- and four-year colleges.
  • When determinants of college attendance are unrelated to ultimate college success, this can lead to underinvestment in higher education. Factors like distance act like a price increase that affects some students but not others, regardless of their ability to benefit from college. This means some students who would equal or outperform their peers simply never attend college. This is a loss for both those students and our wider society. College attendance is a known lever for increasing lifetime earnings, even for academically marginal students (see here and here). And ensuring that our most talented students make it to college potentially benefits society as a whole in the form of higher tax revenues, more skilled workers, and greater innovation.

What this Means:

A large share of American high school seniors lack access to a nearby college. At the same time, relocation costs are large even for young individuals, and such costs often far outstrip direct travel or start-up adjustment costs. The result is that geography is still an important determinant of not just where, but also whether, a student goes on to college. This has the potential to lead to underinvestment in higher education, as it introduces a barrier to college attendance that is unrelated to ultimate success in college. Such barriers can be addressed in two ways. The first approach is to reduce the impact of barriers by subsidizing college attendance for those without good geographic access. The second approach is to enhance access by building new colleges or college system branches in underserved areas. The first approach is likely to be substantially cheaper, but the second entails potential spillovers to affected communities that might nevertheless make it a cost-beneficial strategy as well.


Education Policy / Financial Aid
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