Why we need to help kids go to college wherever they want

How to talk to your kid about paying for college
How to talk to your kid about paying for college

Abigail Wozniak is associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, where she is an affiliate of the Institute for Educational Initiatives and the Wilson-Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunity. Jay Shambaugh is the director of The Hamilton Project, and a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. He is also a professor of economics and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. The opinions expressed belong to them.

"Where should I go to college?" "Where should I work?"

Instinctively, these questions are answered with the name of a dream college or well-liked company. But the geographic dimension — the "where?" — often depends on a person's financial situation and ability to relocate.

The overwhelming majority of public four-year college students currently attend a school within 100 miles of home — and more than half stay within 50 miles, according to our research at The Hamilton Project.

In other words, for most students, the decision of where to go to college is determined largely by where they live.

But for many others, attending college nearby is simply not an option: There are no two- or four-year degree-granting institutions in as many as 58% of US counties, our research found. Limited college access is an issue that impacts students from a wide variety of backgrounds, including those from both rural and urban communities.

Related: This college tax credit saved the typical American family $2,277

America's financial aid system is designed to help students pay for the direct costs of college, including commuting costs. But the costs of a long distance move often exceed the direct moving and travel expenses that aid helps cover. For students in counties without local college access, this may mean the difference between attending college or not.

Another potential barrier arises when students prepare to graduate from college and ask, "Where should I work?"

Unfortunately, the financial burden of both relocation and student loan debt can interfere with a graduate's ability to start their careers off right. Graduates need to begin paying off student loans immediately, and thus may feel pressured to take the first job that comes along.

They may settle for easy-to-get jobs near their university or in a well-known big city, rather than seek their best career match somewhere else.

Previous generations of young adults were much more likely to move for career opportunities. Among 20- to 24- year-olds, moves across state or county lines declined from 16% in 1965 to about 8% in 2016, according to our research.

Meanwhile, employment and earnings opportunities continue to diverge across US localities. For example, labor force participation in rural counties has fallen sharply since the recession, while it has been flat or modestly falling in metropolitan counties.

Related: College tuition is still getting more expensive

But cities with more educated workers have been growing faster and paying higher wages for decades. This has contributed to a rising concentration of skilled workers in larger cities.

Combined, these factors mean that recent college graduates face a more difficult path to finding a first job that is best for them.

In order to level the playing field for all students, we need to remove geographic barriers to college access and careers.

One solution is to create large supplements to the Pell Grant to help students without local college access.

An annual supplement of up to $5,000 for students from counties without a degree-granting college within their borders could help these students afford the high cost of relocating, according to our policy research.

Another strategy is to offer an automatic, full-year student loan grace period for graduating college students if they are working or seeking work in a job market outside of their commuting zone or county.

Related: When does it make financial sense to get a graduate degree?

Deferring loan repayment for students who choose to start their post-college careers after relocating would allow them to seek opportunities in distant job markets, alleviating the pressure to start quickly earning income to meet their repayment obligations.

Given that greater mobility when graduating from college can help workers improve their early career job matches, this is critical for achieving higher lifetime earnings.

College attendance plays an incredibly important role in increasing lifetime earnings, and early career conditions can have persistent effects on those earnings.

By helping workers find the best possible job matches for their skills, these proposals would strengthen the labor market and provide opportunities for those in areas where there are few options.

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