Study: Where College Students Stay Local: Utah Undergrads Remain, While D.C. Undergrads Flee

 February 11, 2021
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More than 9 in 10 first-time undergraduates from Utah stay in-state for college, while just under 1 in 4 first-timers from the District of Columbia do the same.

Student Loan Hero dug into National Center for Education Statistics data to find out which states are keeping the highest percentage of first-time undergrads from going elsewhere. We also took a deeper look at where students leaving their home states were headed.

Here’s what our researchers found.

Key findings

  • Utah (90.7%) has the highest percentage of first-time undergraduates who remain in-state for college. The Beehive State is followed by Mississippi (89.3%) and California (88.5%).
  • The District of Columbia has the lowest percentage of first-time undergraduates who stay there for college, at just 23.7%. The U.S. capital is followed by Vermont (51.4%) and New Hampshire (54.9%).
  • Despite New Hampshire’s mediocre in-state attendance rate — 49th in the nation — the state ranks sixth for net migration, meaning far more students are coming to New Hampshire for college than the amount leaving for college elsewhere.
  • In-state attendance rates across the U.S. have held steady over the past 20-plus years. In the fall of 1998, 83% of first-time undergraduates remained in the state. In the falls of 2014 and 2018, that figure was 82% and 81%, respectively.

Utah, Mississippi and California undergrads most likely to stay closer to home

Utah, Mississippi and California lead the way, with the highest percentage of undergrads who remain in their home states for college:

An impressive 90.7% of first-time undergrads from Utah stay in-state for college. Utah is followed by Mississippi and California, which have retention rates of 89.3% and 88.5%, respectively. Each of these states registers significantly higher than the average of 76.6% across the 50 states and D.C.

“The primary benefit of going to school in your own backyard is savings,” said Andrew Pentis, Student Loan Hero senior writer for student loans. “Yes, your tuition rate will likely be significantly lower than what your out-of-state peers would pay. But that’s just the beginning.”

For example:

  • The University of Utah now offers fully paid tuition and fees to first-time freshmen through the For Utah Scholarship
  • Mississippi’s Higher Ed Legislative Plan provides up to the cost of tuition and fees for eligible students attending public universities
  • California’s Cal Grant program provides up to $12,570 yearly to new recipients

There are also secondary savings opportunities that can factor into the decision to stay closer to home, including:

  • Rent
  • Utilities
  • Food
  • Transportation

“Of course, there are also more qualitative benefits of staying close to home for college,” Pentis added. “For one, you can lean on your existing network of family and friends to help you make the adjustment to college life. For another, attending the public college or university nearby might allow you to more truly explore degree paths, as private universities tend to have more specialized programs.”

There’s also a social component to consider, as 61.6% of Utah residents identify as Latter-day Saints. A Daily Utah Chronicle survey found there is a bit more diversity of religious identity at the University of Utah, though Latter-day Saints still have the largest representation at 35.9%.

Similarly, growing up in a diverse state like California may make other locations less desirable — particularly when headed to a place with not-so-ideal weather conditions.

District of Columbia, Vermont and New Hampshire undergrads most likely to stray farther from home

While 54.9% of first-time undergraduates in New Hampshire and 51.4% of first-timers in Vermont choose to stay in-state for college, just 23.7% of District of Columbia undergrads do the same.

“Going to school out of state definitely gives teens and 20-somethings a sense that they’re starting anew, learning a new environment right alongside a new campus,” Pentis said. “At an out-of-state school, particularly a private one, you’re more likely to be surrounded by students coming from different parts of the country — even the world.”

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Another factor that can impact the decision to go out of state for college is the ease, or simply ability, to do so. Smaller states, like Vermont and New Hampshire, may be easier to leave because travel out of state doesn’t take long or cost as much. Compare that to somewhere like California, where you could drive for an entire day and still be in the state.

Having less ground to cover can also mean having fewer college options in general, so students may have to look outside their home states to find what they desire in a university. For example, students may consider the following:

  • Average class sizes
  • Specialized degree programs
  • Study-abroad opportunities
  • Internships access
  • Student body diversity
  • Student enrollment figures
  • Housing options
  • Professors
  • Courses
  • Weather
  • Local attractions

The issue of availability is even more pronounced in D.C., as it has one of the lowest populations and is the smallest by area — by far. (Still, it does offer some solid college options, including American University, Georgetown University, Howard University and George Washington University.)

“If you’re a top-performing student living in a state without a great school, you might feel you owe it to yourself to attend the prestigious school across the country,” Pentis said. “This allure can be powerful, but it’s important for families to ensure the name recognition of the school isn’t the lone reason it sits atop their college list.”

Not only are Utah undergrads staying, but plenty more are coming from other states, too

Utah has the largest net migration of students, which means that far more students are coming there for college than are leaving to go to college elsewhere.

Although both Pennsylvania and Ohio — which rank second and third, respectively, in net migration — don’t have especially high rates of retention when it comes to in-state students, they do pull in significant numbers of out-of-state students.

Both states have notable public university options:

  • Nearly 94,000 students attend one of the 14 universities within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
  • Nearly 600,000 students attend one of Ohio’s 14 public colleges and universities, 23 community colleges and 120-plus adult education programs

In fact, Ohio State University and Penn State University are both toward the top of the list among colleges with the most undergrads in the U.S.

Utah’s ranking, on the other hand, is driven partly by so few students leaving to attend out-of-state schools, but also by the significant numbers of out-of-state students coming to attend Utah colleges.

Part of this appeal for out-of-state students could be location. As an example, Utah is roughly central for the western half of the country, meaning it may be slightly easier to get to for students looking to get away from their home states, but unwilling to go as far as the opposite side of the country.

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The quality of schools and programs is another major factor with these states, from the University of Utah to Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University and Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University.

Again, there’s the experiential part that could shape students’ decisions to leave home.

“Besides Utah’s natural beauty making it appealing to other out-of-state students, it also has two public universities — University of Utah and Utah State — that keep many in-state students from crossing the border,” Pentis said. “I could also see out-of-state students who want to ski in between winter classes or visit national parks year-round thinking that Utah would be a good state for their ‘studies.’”

Far more students choose to exit New Jersey, Illinois and Texas

New Jersey has the distinction of being the most-deserted state for college — and by a significant margin. All told, the state loses a net 28,259 students a year. Bordering New York and Pennsylvania — both of which are home to world-class universities — means the allure of going to college out of state may be heightened.

Illinois and Texas rank second and third on the list, with negative net migrations of 19,905 and 13,288, respectively. Interestingly, Texas ranks fourth in the country for in-state undergrad retention, but still lands in the bottom three for net migration.

Should you stay close to home or go away for college?

It depends. Students must factor in everything from associated costs and social activities to courses and opportunities for internships that could help with career paths.

While going to an out-of-state school has the appeal of experiencing new things and having the freedom to grow, opting for an in-state college can provide the comfort of less student loan debt and proximity to family. It’s a delicate balance and, ultimately, the right call is different for everyone.

“Students should approach the in-or-out-of-state question from both a quantitative and qualitative standpoint,” Pentis said. “Affordability is key, but so is personal fit.”

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The key, he said, is gathering as much information as possible. Pentis suggests school net price calculators and the Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Once acceptance letters arrive, students can begin to compare options.

“If you’re leaning toward an out-of-state option, try to speak to a student at the school who made the very transition,” Pentis said. “Learn about where they came from, how they were able to adjust and whether they’d do it all over again. In fact, talk to as many people as you can.”

Beyond this, he suggested:

  • Asking family and friends who know you best about their opinion
  • Bugging your current school’s guidance counselor
  • Pestering the admissions and financial aid offers at your desired schools

“Gather as much expertise and information as you can to ensure you come to the best possible decision,” he said.

Published in Press, Research