Abigail Wozniak is an economics professor at Notre Dame. First appearing on EconoFact, a nonpartisan economics publication, she analyzed how geographic location could be a major barrier in going to college for those who do not live near an institution. There are many factors that contribute to this issue, which we will outline briefly below.

How Many People Attend College Close to Home?

Over the past quarter-century, Wozniak found that a larger portion of college students are attending college closer to home than ever before. In fact, 56.2 percent of public four-year college students attend a college that is no more than an hour drive’s away.

Moreover, 70 percent of these students are attending college no more than two hours away from their home according to Higher Education Research Institute’s CIRP survey. This increase in those attending college closer to home has been trending since the 1990s when only a third of college students lived within 50 miles of the institution they were attending.

However, Wozniak points out that the cause for this phenomenon is not readily known. Instead, she draws upon two other trends that she thinks are related. The first one is the “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.”

In general, geographic mobility has been declining across America, and this is perhaps just one contributing factor to why would-be college students do not end up attending college at all.

What is the Current Distribution of Institutions?

One of the hardest pieces of data to acquire is how many high school seniors do not have a nearby institution. One method Wozniak outlines is to look at the U.S. Department of Education IPEDS to measure whether a county has a two or four-year institutions within its border. Using this method, it turns out that 58 percent of counties, containing 14 million of the US population, do not have an institution within its border. In sum, roughly 1 in 6 high school seniors lack access to a local institution.

Other Factors

Along with an increase in students attending colleges close to home, as well as a lack of local colleges for a significant portion of high schoolers, the cost of relocating far outweighs the cost of travel. As such, geography is still an important factor to consider not only where someone might attend college, but perhaps if they will at all. Wozniak offers two solutions. The first aims to “reduce the impact barriers by subsidizing college attendance for those who do not have good geographic access”; the second is to “enhance access by building new colleges or college system branches in underserved areas.”

To read in full Wozniak’s analysis, you may read it here on PBS or go to the original publication location on EconoFact here.