The Geography of College Opportunity

Many elite schools—and even state universities—are in remote locations. But most students stick close to home.

Amanda Hinchman-Dominguez isn't the typical American college student. She's enrolled in an institution that's more than 1,300 miles away from where her family lives. She's living on campus, in a dorm. And she's attending a small, private liberal-arts college.

Most undergraduates go to college in their home state, and most head to public institutions. As demographics change and college costs rise, going away to college might become even more unusual.

More than one-third of undergraduates lived with their parents during the 2011-12 school year—the highest share in 20 years, according to federal data released to National Journal. The share, charted below, includes students of all ages pursuing two-year or four-year degrees.

There are a number of reasons why students might choose to attend a nearby college or university, from family ties to academic preparation. Lack of information may also narrow some students' options: Stanford's Caroline Hoxby and Harvard's Christopher Avery have found that high-achieving, low-income students often don't apply to any selective colleges at all, although they would have a good chance of getting in.

Hispanic students, a fast-growing share of the college population, are particularly likely to stay close by. Deborah Santiago, cofounder of Excelencia in Education, says that Latino students to whom her nonprofit organization has spoken say they looked for colleges with a low sticker price and convenient location.

"It's very pragmatic, the idea that college is college. And we hear from students all the time: 'I can get a quality education from anywhere, if I'm motivated,' " Santiago says.

Rising tuition prices, combined with an economy that still feels like a recession to many families, may be turning more students into pragmatists. Almost 70 percent of families recently surveyed by Sallie Mae, a financial-services company, said they chose an in-state institution in order to save on tuition. Fifty-four percent said that the student was living at home to save money.

Hinchman-Dominguez is an academic striver who knew she couldn't rely on her parents to pay for college. So she went looking for scholarships and got a generous offer from Grinnell College. She liked the feel of Grinnell's small campus, and she wanted to get out of Florida. Mission accomplished: Grinnell is a town of fewer than 10,000 in central Iowa, an hour away from the closest city.

Grinnell is in good company on the roster of good schools in remote locations. Plenty of elite colleges, from Amherst to Kenyon, are in small towns far from a major population center. The same could be said for some state flagships: The University of Florida is in Gainesville, not Miami; the University of Georgia is in Athens, not Atlanta.

Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, calculates that one in 10 Americans only have one public college nearby. And that school is usually a community college. Most of the areas Hillman calls "education deserts" are rural. But other patterns he found also pose challenges for low-income and minority students who want access to a quality education. "In general," Hillman says, "the whitest communities have the most colleges."