Geographic Diversity and College Admissions

July 12, 2021

Cruise around on any highly-selective college’s website and you are likely to find a statement about the freshman class being comprised of students from “all 50 U.S. states and X number of countries.” If the number isn’t 50, it’s likely in the high 40s–after all, there are only so many North Dakota valedictorians to go around (194 to be exact). This brings us to the topic of “geographic diversity” and how it can be a factor in admissions decisions at elite colleges and universities.

We begin by examining statistics on geography as it relates to college selection:

How far from home do most students go for college?

We think of matriculation into college as a time of great separation, the moment where 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. One study revealed that 72% of college-bound students attend school in-state and a 2019 poll found that 15% choose schools within a 100 mile radius of their home. Historically, only 11% of students opt for an institution more than 500 miles away and just a mere 2% of teens are adventurous enough to enroll in institutions more than 2,000 miles from their parent’s abode. One has to figure that a good number of this 2% involves individuals in Los Angeles or San Francisco making their way to hotbeds of elite schools on the East Coast, or vice versa. This makes the student who leaves, say, Casper, Wyoming to attend Bowdoin College quite the rarity.

In our increasingly mobile society, this finding is somewhat surprising, perhaps even discouraging. Although remaining close to home for college can seem the 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 perceived 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—it’s also a great marketing tool.

For example, let’s say that 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 over other, perhaps previously more attractive, Ohio-based institutions like Kenyon or Oberlin.

Does this 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 example, this is still a way that 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.

Geographic diversity helps you stand out at elite schools

Not every college wants or needs to improve the geographic diversity of its student body—Harvard and Yale 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. Likewise at other elite colleges and universities around the country. New England powerhouse liberal arts schools like Amherst College, Williams College, Middlebury College, Connecticut College, Vassar College, Wesleyan University, among many others, receive a flood of applications from teens hailing from East Coast metropolitan areas. As a result, the prospective student with comparable credentials from, again, Casper, Wyoming will certainly catch an admissions officer’s eye.

How to use this strategically

Taking advantage of the institutional desire for geographic diversity can be one tool of many in your arsenal, but it isn’t one you want to wield just for the heck of it. 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.