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Are students fleeing to the south to avoid The Woke? Three possible answers.

The three answers to the question in the title, in case you want to cut to the chase, are "Yes," "No," and "Maybe but we really can't tell for certain."

This has been a point of discussion for some time.  The completely neutral publication Southern Living, with absolutely nothing to gain from publishing this piece, for instance, was convinced it was true back in 2022. 

The American Thinker had similar observations, but made it about politics in this piece. And finally, among the articles I've seen, at least, is this one, in The Free Press where the money quote is "Even if I could have gotten into Harvard, I wouldn't have gone," an observation which seems like it was made for a gif.

There are a lot of anecdotes in these articles, of course, and we all know that three anecdotes are more than enough to build a story upon: My lawyer's neighbor's son's girlfriend is going to Alabama because she liked the rush videos, for instance, can be the basis for a whole research paper in sociology.  Or, of course, an article in a publication that pays by the word.

I have a stubborn old-fashioned preference for data, however.  And--just to spoil the fun--even data won't tell us everything we need to know to answer the question.  But it's a good start, and it's perhaps a bit more robust than political hit pieces described as documenting societal trends.

And good news for all of you who don't like to interact with Tableau visualizations: This one is just pictures.

First, let's take a look at the shape of the market to have a place where we can put our feet down.  We'll start with WICHE data, which I've found to be very reliable, but of course imperfect, showing high school graduates over time, with years after 2019 being projections.  For all of these views, I've broken things out by my own state regions, colored on this map. (Click it or any image to view larger).

Here is the breakdown of high school graduates by these regions, showing the percentage of total in each year. Columns total to 100% in each year.

If you know anything at all about higher education data, you already see a problem as we try to establish some framework: Each state and each region has different college going patterns.  In wealthier states, and states with higher educational attainment among parents, college-going rates are higher.  Within states, there are differences too: About 8% of all college students in the US attend community colleges in California, for instance, and almost all of those students are California residents.

Now, let's take a look at undergraduate enrollment over this same period.  Because much of the national discussion is focused on first-time freshmen, I've limited this enrollment set to only those traditional, four-year institutions that enroll undergraduates and accept freshmen.  I'll just call this The Filter Set going forward.

You'll probably notice that the patterns are about the same, but you see the effect of the California Community Colleges here: Many more students don't attend four-year colleges in the state, which makes it different from other parts of the country.  For reference, here is the same visualization showing all undergraduate enrollment in all institutions (not just in The Filter Set).  You'll note the re-balancing, which is a function of the vast majority of college students going to college close to home.

Here is the historical pattern of first-year student migration, from 1988 to 2022.  As you can see, about seven of ten students stay in their own state for college, which means the number of students who cross state lines is small, making even big swings in those patterns hard to measure and describe as meaningful.  It's also interesting to note that more students today are more mobile than in the past, for a lot of reasons I won't go into here, but as always, you can start the finger pointing with Ronald Reagan. 

For the sake of clarity (or confusion) here is the same data for The Filter Set.  Similar pattern, slightly different numbers.  More students cross state lines to attend these institutions with wider draws.

And if you want to break it out a little bit, here is a view over time of The Filter Set and the migration patterns between regions in 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2022. 

And this data shows only those students who left their home state and who attended one of the colleges in the Filter Set, to help amplify the migration patterns. 

Over time, the percentage of first-year applications submitted has grown in the Southeast, but not the Southcentral region.  Actually, what's remarkable about this chart is the consistency over time.

The breakouts of enrolling first-year students by region?  Also stable and showing similar patterns.

So, maybe there is a slight trend along the margins of college attendance.  But what's causing it?  Most social scientists (going out on a limb here) would say it's probably best when researching a problem like this to dive more deeply than interviews with a dozen students who fit the pattern you're trying to demonstrate.  What I see in the overall patterns appears to follow population shifts, which is probably the biggest "duh" of all: If population in the Southeast is growing, you'd expect college enrollment to grow as well.  

But let's discount that obvious answer for a moment.

Why would students be applying to more southern locations?  Well, first, they're easier to get into, in general. 

For another thing, they cost a lot less, on average, based on sticker price.  Each dot represents one college, and the gray boxes cover the middle 50%, with the divider between dark gray and light gray showing the median.  You can see that for both public and (especially) private colleges, tuition seems to be much lower than other places. I've not tried to normalize this by Carnegie type or selectivity, to be clear.

Private colleges in the south net a lot less cash per freshman, too.  This does not always mean students pay less, but it's a pretty sure bet in general it costs less after aid to go south as well. (I only calculate this for private institutions because discount rates at publics are fairly meaningless given different tuition levels and state funding models, in case you were wondering.)

But the publics do a pretty good job of funding nonresidents, too. They recruit hard and roll out the welcome mat for students, especially on price.

We don't have 2023 data yet, and we won't have 2024 data for about another 18 months, at least, so maybe we'll wake up one morning and find that these small sample size stories are dead-on.  But I seriously doubt it.  For every student fleeing the north because of The Woke, there is probably a student fleeing the less Woke states below the Mason-Dixon Line.

And yet, we know many--perhaps most--17-year-olds are afflicted with still-undeveloped prefrontal cortices that might keep them from being political, rational, and/or sophisticated when it comes to college choice.

The answer to the headline?  You probably already knew the answer, didn't you?  The lesson is that media pundits who look at a little bit of data and talk to a few people to confirm their perspectives often shape the narrative, which gets stuck in the collective consciousness of the American conversation.  It's not something I can fix.  Maybe you can make a little dent if you share this with people.

But it's important, when we see increasing criticism of our institutions, and increased turmoil on campuses, that we--the people who work in higher education--provide the balanced and rational perspective we so often claim to impart to our graduates.


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