Importance of Geographic Diversity and College Admissions

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We think of matriculation into college as a time of great separation — the moment when the young leave the nest, spread their wings and fly into the great beyond to meet their futures. It turns out, however, that most little birdies don’t fly too far.

How far from home do most students go for college? Fall 2010 data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that 72 percent of college-bound students attend school in-state, while 58 percent choose schools within a 100-mile radius of their home. Only 11 percent of students opt for an institution more than 500 miles away and a mere 2 percent of teens are adventurous enough to enroll in institutions more than 2,000 miles from their parent’s abode.

Although remaining close to home for college can seem like a more comfortable and convenient option, there are significant benefits associated with casting a wider net. Most notably, a willingness to travel can lead to improved admissions prospects and better financial aid offers. Why? Because colleges crave something called “geographic diversity” — that is, a student body comprised of young people from all around the country, and even the globe.

Why do colleges care about geographic diversity? Like high test scores and low acceptance rates, geographic diversity improves a school’s selectivity, as well as its ability to increase enrollment and revenue. All things equal, colleges will almost always favor the applicant coming from a more distant or exotic locale, and not just because the applicant brings a unique background and perspective to campus — but because it’s also a great marketing tool.

For example, let’s say Denison University, a liberal arts college in the middle of Ohio, is seeking to improve its ranking. Nabbing a highly accomplished student from Columbus or Cleveland might help, but not as much as luring an equally accomplished student from, let’s say… Seattle. That’s because a student hailing from the birthplace of grunge can serve as a phenomenal marketing tool. Our fictional Seattle attendee could introduce the college to an entirely new network of potential applicants, who may now actually consider Denison University over other, perhaps previously more attractive, Ohio-based institutions like Kenyon College or Oberlin College and Conservatory.

Does geographic diversity apply to state schools? A few years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “No!” In the past, the opposite effect was true, pretty much across the board. Being a hometown guy or gal gave you a big admissions edge at schools like the University of Michigan, the University of Alabama or Louisiana Tech. In today’s harsh economic climate, state schools — even excellent ones — are desperate for sources of revenue and have begun aggressively recruiting out-of-state students who can pay full freight.

While the institutional motivation may be completely different than in our Denison University example, this is still a way applicants can use their location to gain an edge in admissions. Of course, in this case, the university’s motivation is financial in nature and thus you are unlikely to have an advantage when it comes to netting a healthy aid package.

Not every college wants or needs to improve the geographic diversity of its student body. Harvard and Yale universities already attract more qualified Alaskans than they are able to admit. That being said, an Ivy League applicant from West Virginia or Montana will certainly stand out over the glut of applicants from cities in the Northeast or other elite colleges and universities around the country.

There’s a reason that colleges in the landlocked Great Plains region have trouble attracting candidates from the coasts — that type of experience isn’t for everyone. However, if your dream school happens to be far from home, or if you reside in a remote region of the country, a school’s mission to achieve geographic diversity may just help you come out a winner in the admissions game.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at