This graphic from “Optimal Spatial Distribution of Colleges,” shows that Illinois would produce more college educated adults if four-year institutions (the green circles) moved closer to where high school students live.

Almost 80 percent of high school graduates go to college nowadays.  Almost half of them, mostly low-income students, start at a community college. And 80 percent of those say they hope to get a four-year bachelor’s degree. But in the end, less than a third of community college graduates transfer to a four-year college, and still fewer of them — only about 15 percent — succeed in getting that undergraduate degree.

For some, the problem might be one of real estate. According to a new research study, community college students are particularly resistant to traveling long distances or moving to a new town for school. Yet the best affordable colleges tend to be the state flagship universities, which are often located far from the cities where large numbers of community college students live. Instead of transferring to the best four-year college that they can get into, community college graduates tend to enroll in the four-year college that is closest to home – often one where the chances of graduating are lower and the professional prospects are dimmer. And if there isn’t a four-year college nearby, many simply end their college career altogether.

In a working paper,”Who Transfers and Where Do They Go? Community College Students in Florida,” Ben Backes, a researcher at the American Institutes for Research, and his co-author Erin Dunlop Velez, looked at every student who graduated from high school in Florida between 2002 and 2004 and tracked the students for 10 years. The researchers examined high school transcripts, test scores, community college grades and other administrative data to see which factors were most important in the decision to go to community college and then transfer to a four-year school afterward.  Their results were presented on Feb. 20, 2015, at a conference of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), a consortium of Backes’s research institute and six universities.

The authors found that three-quarters of the 80,000 students they tracked who went to a community college never transferred to a four-year school. Distance to the nearest four-year institution appeared to be almost as important a factor in their decision as the student’s community college grades. In other words, if the nearest four-year college was 30 miles away from the student’s community college, that translated to a 30 percent decrease in the likelihood of transferring. That’s almost the same decrease in transfer rates between a B and a C student. That means there are strong, “A” students who aren’t continuing their education because a four-year school is too far away. For 10 percent of community college students in Florida, there isn’t a four-year institution within a 55-mile radius.

Among the quarter of community college students who did transfer, Backes found a curious pattern: they mostly flocked from one community college to the same four-year institution. For example, 80 percent of the transfer students from Miami-Dade College, a two-year community college, went 14 miles away to Florida International University. Only 4 percent transferred to the state flagship university, the University of Florida in Gainesville, 336 miles away. Tuition wasn’t a driving factor; the University of Florida charges about the same tuition as other Florida public colleges.

“We were surprised that no one really goes beyond the nearest four-year institution,” said Backes. “Absolutely, many of them would have been admitted to the University of Florida,” judging by their test scores and grades.

Backes said this decision can be a crucial one. The flagship school is much better funded. It offers more courses to help students meet their requirements and get their degrees quickly. Graduation rates are much higher; students of similar educational and demographic backgrounds are far more likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees if they attend the flagship university. And finally, students who go to the flagship school have better professional prospects and earn more money after graduation, on average.

Backes looked at only Florida, but he suspects that his findings would be true in many states, and especially places like California and Texas, where the best four-year public colleges are sometimes far from urban population centers.

It’s unclear exactly why Florida’s community college students are especially sensitive to distance, and what can be done about it. One hypothesis is that many low-income students from immigrant families might be gravitating toward what is familiar. They might not be aware that their prospects would be much brighter if they moved to Gainesville for a couple years. They might not know that they can get financial aid to cover their living expenses. Perhaps information sessions, where top community college students are presented with information on graduation rates and post-college salaries from different four-year institutions, might prompt them to make a better choice.

But it’s also likely that many of these students have already started families or are supporting parents. They cannot uproot their lives or quit their part-time or full-time jobs to move away to finish college.

Perhaps universities should move closer to where the students are?

Exactly that was suggested in a University of Washington study, presented on Feb. 26, 2015, at the Association for Education Finance and Policy Conference. In “Optimal Spatial Distribution of Colleges,” Mark Long calculated that the United States could optimize the college education of the nation, as measured by credits completed, if four-year colleges moved closer to urban population centers and two-year colleges moved farther away from them.

Of course, Long doesn’t really expect the University of California at Riverside to move to Los Angeles. But as the population grows and state universities consider expansion plans, he suggests, for example, that the University of Illinois campus in Chicago should be targeted instead of the one in Champaign.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.