A New State by State Study Examines Where Students Go to College!

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Dear Commons Community,

A new study co-authored by Craig Wills, the computer-science department chair at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Chayanne Sandoval-Williams, a student at WPI, tries to provide insights into where students decide to go to college. This is a subject of importance to higher education policy makers and administrators. College choices are based on a range of factors — cost, location, program offerings, facilities, and more — moving the decision in different directions for individual students.  Here is a summary written by Isha Trivedi of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Using Ipeds data from 2012, 2018, and 2020, Wills and Sandoval-Williams characterized the college “market” in each state, indicating where students are more likely to stay in state for college and where they’re more likely to migrate elsewhere. The researchers focused on four-year institutions.

On average, 54 percent of all college-bound students attend an in-state public college, while 15 percent attend an in-state private college.

Students in Michigan, Louisiana, and Texas are more likely to attend college in their home states. The researchers described those states as “self-contained markets.”

In Texas, for instance, 91 percent of first-year students are from the state. Among all public colleges, Texas A&M University enrolls the largest number of in-state students, with Pennsylvania State University a close second.

Meanwhile, a larger share of students from New Jersey and Alaska are attending college out of state, compared to the average across all states. Despite that outward migration, institutions in those states are still enrolling a higher than average percentage of in-state students. The trend suggests a need for those states to increase their capacity for in-state students, the study said.

On the other hand, the “relatively fewer” in-state college-bound students and out-of-state first-year students in New Jersey and Alaska could also indicate that colleges in these states are “less attractive” than similar institutions in different states, researchers wrote.

North Dakota, West Virginia, and Utah, however, may have more on-campus capacity than they need for in-state students. While a relatively large share of students from those states decide to stay in state for college, the institutions enroll smaller-than-average shares of in-state students in their first-year classes. Those figures could also indicate that colleges in those states are “more attractive” than peer institutions elsewhere.

The study found that just 6 percent of college-bound students from Utah and West Virginia attend college beyond the immediate region, which the study defines as in state or in an adjoining state.

In contrast, high-school seniors from states including Hawaii and Oregon attend college farthest from their home state. Among specific institutions, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa enroll the lowest percentage of students from the immediate area.

“I was mildly surprised in some cases,” Wills said. For example, he was struck by the broad geographic range that Tulane University draws students from. The reach of some public universities surprised him, too. “I was familiar with institutions like University of Michigan that had maybe a pretty broad reach, even though they are public institutions, but certainly other ones that I was less aware of popped up there,” he said.

Through Ipeds data, the study also examined how college-migration patterns might have been affected by the pandemic.

Wills and Sandoval-Williams found that, during the pandemic, from 2018 to 2020, the share of students studying fully online increased by 27 percentage points, and the percentage of international students at four-year U.S. colleges decreased by nearly 1 percentage point.

Over all, students traveled farther away from home for college during the fall-2020 semester. But a contributing factor might have been the increase in students studying online. They might have been taking classes at a faraway institution without physically migrating to the state.

The percentage of students specifically attending major state universities — “flagship, land-grant, and a half-dozen other major state institutions” — increased during the pandemic, and the distance those students migrated to get to their respective colleges decreased accordingly.

“The major state and national public institutions tended to attract more students because of the pandemic, but the students tended to reside closer to the institution,” the study states.

The study also noted that “national liberal-arts colleges saw a decline both in the number and migration distance of first-year students.”

Historically Black colleges and universities, though, saw an increase in the average number of first-year students, and an increase in how far students were traveling to attend.

Wills said the study could be useful for college administrators or state leaders to determine whether public universities are able to sufficiently address the enrollment needs of in-state students.

Interesting data!  Below is the abstract from the study itself.



Migration of American College Students
Craig E. Wills and Chayanne Sandoval-Williams
Computer Science Department
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
May 2022


This work studies the migration of college-bound students to attend American colleges and universities in the Fall 2020 timeframe. It makes use of the rich IPEDS data source augmented with additional data to determine both the migration patterns and migration distance for each 4-year institution in the U.S. These results are also used to characterize the movement of college students on a per-state basis.

Using the percentages of college-bound students enrolling in-state as well as first-year students enrolled in colleges of the state, we are able to characterize the college “market” of each state. It shows that Texas, Louisiana and Michigan are the most self-contained markets with both a higher than average percentage of college-bound students remaining in state and a higher than average percentage of first-year college students from in-state. The District of Columbia, Vermont and New Hampshire are freer markets with relatively more student movement in and out of the state. The results suggest that more in-state college capacity is needed for college-bound students in New Jersey and Alaska. Colleges in these markets may also be less attractive as these states both enroll relatively fewer in-state college-bound students as well as out-of-state first-year college students. In contrast, the results suggest that North Dakota, West Virginia and Utah may have more college capacity than is needed. Colleges in these markets may also be more attractive as these states both enroll relatively more in-state college-bound students as well as out-of-state first-year college students.

The migration patterns for major state institutions show Texas A&M and the University of Texas have the highest percentage of first year students from their state while the University of Vermont has the lowest. The University of the District of Columbia and the University of Nevada enroll the highest percentage of in-state or adjoining state students while the University of Michigan, University of Colorado and University of Alabama enroll the smallest percentage in their immediate region. First-year students at the University of Hawaii, University of Oregon, Montana State and the University of Colorado have the highest migration distance to attend these institutions.

Similar migration patterns and migration distance are reported for national public universities, national private universities, national liberal arts colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and primarily online institutions. Focusing on migration distance shows that MIT and Stanford, followed by Cal Tech and Dartmouth, have the greatest reach for national privates. Reed College and Thomas Aquinas College, followed by Pomona College and Wellesley College, have the largest migration distance for the liberal arts colleges with Howard University and Clark Atlanta University having the greatest reach for HBCUs.

The results for primarily online institutions show that Southern New Hampshire University enrolls the highest number of first-year students in this group followed by Grand Canyon University and Liberty University. The results show that the University of Phoenix-Arizona, American InterContinental University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide have the greatest reach relative to the location of these institutions.

Finally we examine the initial effects of the Covid-19 pandemic by comparing the Fall 2020 data with previous years. Not surprisingly, these initial pandemic results show a significant increase in the number of fully-online students and a drop in first-year international students. There is more variation among institutional groups. On average, institutions in the HBCU and primarily online groups showed an increase both in the average number of first-year students and the migration distance for these students between 2018 and 2020. In contrast, national liberal arts colleges saw a decline both in the number and migration distance of first-year students. The major state and national public institutions tended to attract more students because of the pandemic, but the students tended to reside closer to the institution.

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