Close-to-Home College Can Be a Missed Opportunity
Too many students end up at a lower-ranked school
Students headed toward a top-ranked college – an Ivy League school, say, or one of the most elite public universities – are accustomed to a nationwide search for the best opportunity. But students a notch or two down in test scores or grades too often limit their college search to what’s local, settling for a less-than-perfect fit for their abilities and ambitions.
“In reality, the students who are conducting national searches are just the ones going to top-tier schools,” says Daniel Klasik, assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nearly three out of five students at public four-year colleges are within 50 miles of home, and 70 percent are within 100 miles of home.
Staying nearby works out well for most students, who stay close to family and social support systems, and aren’t scrambling for cash to buy plane tickets home. The problem emerges for the students who attend colleges below their academic abilities.
We know this, Klasik says, because of studies that look at students with similar GPAs and test scores, some of whom just barely gain admission to, say, a flagship state school, and others who don’t. Over time, the alumni of the better schools earn notably more income. “Students do the best when they go to a college that’s appropriate for their test scores and GPA — essentially the most selective college that matches their academic credentials,” Klasik says. Scholars call this “academically matching” to a college.
The picture grows murkier when considering demographics and geography. The students most likely to undermatch live in regions where no affordable, accessible matching school exists. And Black, Latinx and Native American students, as well as those first from their families to attend college, are less likely to travel for higher education.
“It’s a privilege to be able to pack up and move across the country and live on campus and afford a meal plan,” says Vanessa Sansone, assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “When students of color think about where to go to college, it’s usually within their proximity.”
Leaving is particularly difficult for students in cultures unlikely to saddle parents with more debt, as well as for students whose families depend on them for day-to-day support like childcare or income.
Sansone herself attended undergraduate and graduate school in San Antonio, where she now works, due to family responsibilities. “Latinos tend to think about their families a lot, and not just the individualistic gains. Their main concern is to not harm. So to just say, ‘See y'all, I’m leaving you to focus on myself — I’m gonna go join a sorority’ is kind of absurd in Latino culture.”
Sansone suggests that prospective undergrads choose the best paths for them, which is easier to do with a bit of legwork. She suggests starting early, in junior year:
Understand your region. Which describes your area?
—Few colleges exist, and none are an affordable, broad-access option (such as a four-year public school).
—Lower-tier colleges and community colleges exist, but no upper-tier schools are nearby.
—Colleges and community colleges of all tiers exist within driving distance.
Now pay attention: Klasik finds that in regions without a college, students realize this and apply further away. But in regions with some lower-tier options, students tend to attend a nearby college below their level.
Identify the “matching” schools closest to you. “There’s probably not much reason to leave your state,” Klasik says. Flagship state schools will work for most higher achievers, and other state campuses will work for average achievers. You only may need to leave the state if you’re an elite student, if your state’s schools are particularly troubled or not a good fit — or if you’ve always felt out of place in your region. Make sure to visit and sit in on classes. “Students are going to be most successful at the colleges where they feel comfortable,” Klasik says.
Calculate the opportunity costs — and gains. If leaving home is necessary, how much are living costs? Is there a price to leaving behind family responsibilities or social supports? What are the gains worth, in terms of your future earnings power, knowledge and social benefits?
With all this legwork done, you’ll have a clear idea of the options. “We tend to talk about college searching as a process — just do these things, and you’ll end up at the best school,” Sansone says. “The answer is that you have to choose the institution that is best for you.”
Aiming high, of course, can mean paying more. Schools hand out more student aid to those whose test scores and grades are above the school’s typical student. And the average private college student only pays 55% of the list price. Coming in near the bottom of a school’s range, though it could pay off in a better career and salary later on, could also mean paying more tuition.