Despite tremendous growth in enrollment and student recruitment over the past four decades, today's freshmen are only slightly more inclined to venture very far to go to college. As in the past, a great many stay within 50 miles of home.
A greater percentage than ever before said getting a better job was a crucial reason to go to college.
Proximity matters, students say: For the third time in four years, 20 percent of respondents said being close to home was a very important factor in their college choice. That's higher than in 1983, when researchers first asked the question, and 16 percent of freshmen considered it very important. (The annual Freshman Survey polls only first-time, full-time students at four-year institutions.)
Over the past 40 years, patterns of proximity have shifted only slightly. In both 1971 and 2012, for instance, 53 percent of freshmen attended college within 100 miles of home. In the earlier year, 36 percent of students went to college from 101 to 500 miles away; in 2012, 32 percent did. Then and now, smaller proportions of students chose colleges very close to home (within 10 miles) or very far away (more than 500 miles).
Students' consistently opting for colleges not far from home may seem to contradict popular beliefs about globalization, says David A. Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. But people, he says, are still "provincial beings."
"People like to be close to family, and they like to be in familiar places," he says. "It takes a particular person to be willing, at such a young age, to strike out on their own in such a dramatic way." Even with more out-of-state recruitment by colleges these days, students' distance traveled hasn't changed much over all.
That could be instructive for colleges as they confront profound demographic shifts in the coming years, says Mr. Hawkins. With the number of high-school graduates dwindling in some regions, such as parts of the Northeast and Midwest, colleges that rely on drawing nearby applicants will face a challenge. For all but the most selective institutions, attracting students from far-off, more-populous locales will likely be difficult.
At the same time, Mr. Hawkins says, students who are more tightly bound to home for economic or cultural reasons might respond well to colleges that shift their recruiting strategies and take a hyperlocal approach. By leveraging their backyards, he says, colleges may be able to maintain or increase their enrollments while expanding access to students in the immediate vicinity.
Austin Peay State University, in Clarksville, Tenn., offers one example of how to appeal to local prospective students. "You don't have to go far to get far," it proclaims on its Web page. "Lucky for you, you live near a four-year university that offers a world of opportunities."