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Low-Income Students Choose Closest—But Not Always Best—Colleges

One barrier keeping low-income students from attending four-year universities is a basic obstacle that's hard to solve: location.

Research that focuses on community college students in Florida finds that many simply do not transfer to a four-year school because it's too far away from their home.

The working paper, "Who Transfers and Where Do They Go? Community College Students in Florida," by Ben Backes, a researcher with the American Instittues for Research, and Erin Dunlop Velez, of the Research Triangle Institute, followed 80,000 students for 10 years who began at a community college between 2002 and 2004. The researchers discovered that three-quarters never transferred to a four-year school and distance to the nearest four-year institution was almost as important of a factor as their community college grades in making that decision.

Of those who did transfer, the study found students most often enrolled in the nearest university rather than the flagship instititution, although tuition costs were about the same. The authors note that this may be a missed opportunity, as the flagships have more resources and often have better graduation rates.

Many low-income students start at two-year colleges because they are more affordable and allow them to live at home. Whle many enter with the intention of getting a bachelor's degree, the authors suggest that many first-generation college-going students are reluctant to move far away from their families. It is also more cost-effective, in many cases, for students to enroll in four-year universities nearby to save on living expenses.

The paper suggests students be provided with more information about the advantage of attending various institutions so they would consider the best match, rather than just the closest campus. While this analysis focused on Florida, researchers anticipate the findings could be applied to other states.

The paper was published in February by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), a program of research with AIR and several universities.

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