Location, Location, Location

You’ve probably heard the answer to the question, “What are the three most important considerations when dealing with real estate?” — Location, location, location.

Sometimes the same goes for college selection. In that situation, the question might be, “What is your most important criterion for picking a college in which to enroll?” Again, the answer might well be, “Location, location, location.”

In dealing with many high school seniors over the years, I have always been surprised about the power of home. Maybe it’s because of Mom’s influence and her reluctance to see her bird fly from the nest. On the other hand, there are also economic considerations, as I have discussed here in the past. It’s not good form to generalize, but there seem to be two polarized mindsets when it comes to high school seniors (and sometimes their families) making their college enrollment decisions. First, for lack of a better phrase, there is the “I can’t wait to get away from home!” crowd. These tend to be the teens who have, for whatever reason, pretty much had it with the strictures of a “disciplined” home life and the associated parental oversight. I’ve actually had high schoolers tell me that “too far” isn’t far enough away from home. Accordingly, these Northeastern college aspirants fill their college candidate lists with schools from the mountain states and Left Coast.

The flip side of that group is what I call the “Homebounders.” These are the young people who give only a perfunctory nod to considering any school more than a 20-minute car ride from their home. In fact, some of these Homebounders are heavily enabled by Mom and or Dad who reinforce a homebound decision with the lure of a high school graduation package that includes a car. In other words, a bribe that begs “Stay close to home!” The negative side effect of homebounding, in my view, is missing out on the chance for developing a sense of independent living. Sooner or later, Mom and Dad won’t be around to tend certain needs, such as laundry, meals, and money. Of course, like most Bell Curve situations, the bulk of high schoolers considering where to go to college are somewhat open to multiple choices, depending on their ability to get into a wider variety of schools. This group comprises most college applicants. Granted, there’s a huge number of candidates from which to choose, assuming that you can gain admission to them. Plus, many in out-of-the-way places go begging for enrollments.

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I’ve mentioned College Confidential’s Ask the Dean writer, Sally Rubenstone, in previous articles here. In discussing with her the issue of why applicants choose to enroll at the colleges they do, Sally gave me some Dean-like wisdom about that. I’d like to share her thoughts with you.

Question: This year’s annual report by the Higher Educational Research Institute at UCLA on the choice of college locations by high school graduates confirms the ongoing pattern of high school graduates remaining close to their home base: 38% attend within 50 miles or less, 15% within 51 to 100 miles, and 37% within 101 to 500 miles. What are some of the reasons students choose to attend colleges closer to home?

Sally: The school closest to home may be the most affordable one. Not only will some students save money by commuting but also, even for residential students, the in-state tuition can be hard to pass up. My own family will face this dilemma in a couple years. We live 20 minutes from the state flagship university. It has a good honors program and my son may qualify for free tuition there based on state assessment test scores. Granted, it’s not a prestigious university, but will a snazzier sheepskin be worth the couple hundred thousand extra we’d pay for it?  Ideally, I’d like my son to live in a different part of the country when he heads off to college (especially a warmer one!), but pragmatism may prevail when the final verdict is in.

Of course, many students attend college close to home because they don’t fully understand their other options. With most high school guidance counselors handling unwieldy loads, and with many counselors not adequately trained to navigate the admissions maze, students don’t always get the advising they require. The school counselor may not spur them to look beyond the nearby campuses or may insist that private colleges are unaffordable, when—in reality—need-based aid may make some private schools cheaper than the local public ones.

Question: What are some of the benefits of staying close to home (commuting to and from school to avoid room and board costs, being close in case of an emergency, etc.)?

Sally: As noted above, in-state tuition and the option to commute may make the local choices the most pragmatic financial ones. Moreover, some states offer free or greatly reduced tuition to the top in-state candidates to entice them to enroll. Parents are often eager to keep children within a few hours’ drive in case of an emergency. I started advising high school students in Queens, NY, shortly after the 9/11 tragedy. Families who remembered the terror of not knowing where their loved ones were as the towers tumbled often wanted their children to attend college close enough to home that they could gather them up quickly in a crisis.

Finally, some teenagers are reluctant to leave home, worrying that all hell will break loose if they do. They may feel that they are the glue that holds their parents’ marriage together, that an ailing mother or father requires their assistance, or that a younger sibling could suffer in some way without their protection. Most advisors agree that such students are best served by being away from home so that they can focus on their own needs and goals and not be further dragged down by a dysfunctional family. However, it can be hard to convince these students that this is true and, sometimes, when the students do agree to attend a distant college, they find it difficult to concentrate once they get there, for fear of what they’re missing on the home-front. Thus, in certain situations, a student who stays close to home will feel more in control and more able to succeed.

Question: Is it important for students who are financially limited to understand that many out-of-state private and public colleges offer merit scholarships that can make them financially possible?

Sally: Yes. Many guidance counselors fail to explain that sometimes need-based and/or merit scholarships can make a distant college (private or public) as affordable (or even more so) than the local options. All colleges are now required to post “Net Price Calculators” online. Although still in their infancy and not always fully reliable, the NPCs do help prospective students and their parents to get at least a ballpark sense of whether a college will be too costly.  I always recommend that, by the spring of junior year, students and parents begin to play with SuperMatch (or another online search engine) to identify colleges that meet their profile and preferences, and without limiting the results to only in-state public schools. Then the students and parents can use the NPC to determine if the top contenders on the “Results” roster are likely to offer sufficient need-based or merit aid to make enrollment possible.

Question: What else should students consider when looking at going away to school or staying close to home?

Sally: When my co-author, Sid Dalby, and I were first doing research for Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions, we discovered that it is the “Location” issue that is usually the greatest source of family friction in the college search and application process. While families may find other topics to squabble about, too (e.g., cost, prospective majors, campus climate), the “L word is the one most likely to make tempers flair and tears flow. Commonly, Mom and Dad don’t want Junior going too far afield, but sometimes it is actually the child who is afraid of flying (literally or figuratively).

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.