Making the Best Choice About College Depends on Where You Live, Reveals Urban Institute

Posted By Derek Johnson on December 10, 2015 at 3:47 pm
Making the Best Choice About College Depends on Where You Live, Reveals Urban Institute

In November, the Urban Institute released a report looking at how higher education policy is impacting each state across the nation. Researchers compiled statistics on things like college affordability, student migration and the difference in tuition costs for students in each of the 50 states.

The numbers were pulled from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Their data paints a fascinating portrait of complexity in answering questions like:

  • Should you stay in-state for college or venture outward to explore new horizons?
  • Should states use federal grant money to lower tuition and increase access or help those most in need?
  • Where are you most likely to find quality, affordable public universities?

The report provides interactive graphics, and in particular, reveals some interesting regional trends described below.

Students love the Northeast (except those who live there)

As it turns out, your likelihood of sticking around your home state for college largely depends on where you’re from.

One of the trends examined in the study were student migration patterns. Researchers looked at two separate metrics: the percentage of students in each state that opted to enroll in an out-of-state school and each state’s proportion of out-of-state students. In other words, how many homegrown students left to go to college in another state, and how many students in each state were from somewhere else.

The results vary by state, but the Northeast appears to be a hotbed of student migration. All six New England states (Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine) rank in the top 10 for highest proportion of students leaving the state for college. It’s not just that the natives leaving, either. Four of the six (Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts) also place among the top ten for the highest percentage of out-of-state students attending their schools.

U.S. maps showing rates of in-state and out-of-state college enrollment in all 50 states

Source: The Urban Institute

Barbara Brittingham, president for the commission on institutions of higher education for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, said there may be several factors driving these migration patterns. Many northeastern states have private higher education systems that predate public universities (think Harvard and Dartmouth). These schools have higher tuition and are magnets for high-achieving out-of-state students.

There is also a dearth of public university options due to the small size of many New England states relative to the rest of the country. “Big states tend to have many big public institutions. In smaller states, there’s sometimes just one,” said Brittingham. The data suggests there may be some validity to Brittingham’s suggestion. The two largest states (California and Texas) have an abundance of public colleges and sport some of the highest rates of in-state enrollment, 88 percent and 89 percent, respectively.

It’s not just college that is factoring into these migration patterns. People move for all kinds of reasons. A survey conducted by moving company, United Van Lines, found that the Northeast had the highest proportions of people moving out of state in the nation, with respondents citing better weather, job prospects and cost of living as their reasons for the move. “There’s a little bit of science here but also a lot of idiosyncratic choices, for those who have choices,” said Brittingham.

Merit vs. needs-based student aid and the Southern rebellion

States can use their federal higher education grant dollars in two ways: invest it in their budgets in an effort to lower tuition costs for everyone, or allocate it to low-income students and others in need to subsidize their college costs.

There’s no right or wrong answer, and each state tries to strike a balance between increasing college access for everyone and leveling the playing field for poor or disadvantaged students. The latter focuses on the students least likely to have access to good K-12 schools, have the family income to afford tuition at the top universities regardless of grades, and who deal with a host of other socioeconomic factors that aren’t prevalent for the average middle-class student.

What’s interesting about the data here is, again, there’s a large regional disparity. Thirty-five states are classified as implementing the “needs-based” approach while 15 states opted to invest in their operating budgets. Within that latter category is a large swath of the South, including South Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas.

According to a joint study by the National Conference of State Legislators and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, this shift began in the early 1990s, when merit-based grant programs came into fashion, particularly among Southern states:

“It focused on providing financial aid to all students who achieved at a high level academically, rather than relying on programs that only considered financial need, such as those that had evolved in the Northeast and Midwest.”

Critics of merit-based pay argue that this approach disproportionately helps students from wealthier backgrounds that already attend good schools and have the family income to afford tuition at top-tier universities. Supporters point out that many of these southern states declined to participate in need-based grant programs in the past and that a merit-based system still helps high-achieving low-income students.

As the Urban Institute data shows, 20 years later, this debate between the South and the rest of the country continues to rage on.

Don’t go West (for lower tuition)

While tuition costs have historically been going steadily up for the past thirty years, we see that it has jumped most dramatically in West Coast states and their neighbors. Over the past ten years, tuition at four-year institutions has risen 44 percent in real dollars nationwide, but states like California, Washington, Arizona Nevada and Colorado have all seen their costs go up between 77-109 percent. Neighboring states like Idaho and Utah have raised prices considerably less but still clock in higher than the national average.

Each state has its own story, but for many on the West Coast, it is usually an aggressive version of a larger national trend: state disinvestment in higher education combined with post-recession budget woes.

Some of these states, like California, have dealt with major, systemic budget crises that forced them to slash higher education budgets. Grant programs like Cal Grant – which provides varying levels of subsidy for in-state students – have been hit by these cuts, and the cost of this ever-widening gap winds up being passed onto students and their families.

In Washington state, the story is similar. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, between 2009-2012, a series of budget cuts reduced state funding to Washington public universities by as much as 50 percent, with schools raising tuition to make up the difference. The legislature recently took steps to address the disparity by passing a two-year budget committed to lowering tuition costs at public universities by 15-20 percent over the next two years. The budget accomplished this by going against the grain and promising state money to offset any revenue lost by the move.

Still, many states are spending less money on higher education today than they were before the recession, and there is little to indicate that this trend is slowing down or reversing. Absent a new federal subsidy program or other states following Washington’s lead, there is likely to continue to be quite a bit of variation across the country in how students access and pay for college.

Thankfully, this information is being made increasingly more accessible to give college-goers the tools to find a college experience that works best for everyone.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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