America arguably has the best system of higher education in the world, but it is a big place, and students attending college mostly don’t want to drift too far from home—maybe 300 or 400 miles, within an easy day’s drive. If great colleges—the best—are concentrated in just one or two regions, many Americans would find the best schools largely inaccessible.
I thought I would look at the number of top-flight schools for each of six geographic regions of roughly equal population. I took the top 50 schools on the Forbes Best College rankings and also the compilation of 50 best institutions by the Wall Street Journal.
Almost half the schools by either rankings were located in the nine Northeast states with 56 million population: New England plus New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. For every 10 million people living in a region, on average for the country there were about 1.5 truly top schools, but in the Northeast it was almost 4.3—three times as many.
Similarly, the West Coast was well represented, especially California. There were 8 to 10 Top Fifty schools among the 52 million people living in California, Oregon, and Washington, or over 1.7 per 10 million persons—a sizable offering of great schools.
But what about those living in flyover country—the other over 200 million Americans? The two other huge Sun Belt states, Texas and Florida, with 51 million persons, had only one or two Top 50 schools—only about 0.3 per 10 million. For example, there was only one truly top school in the huge state of Texas, Houston’s Rice University, and Forbes found zero in Florida (the other ranking included the University of Miami). The paucity of great schools is about as great in 16 states housing 62 million persons located in the vast area between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast—states as diverse as Minnesota and New Mexico. Both rankings found a grand total of two top 50 schools in that area. Many people were literally close to a thousand miles away from one of the so measured top institutions.
The other two regions—the five large industrial Midwest states (Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin) and 10 states in the old south, had roughly one school per 10 million population, below the national average but not egregiously so. The Wall Street Journal, for example, said Illinois had 3 (Northwestern, Chicago, and Illinois) top 50 schools, the fifth highest of any state. But the populous state of Ohio had zero. Similarly, Forbes found three top 50 schools in both Virginia and North Carolina. Most southern states, however, had no top 50 school.
What explains these concentrations? It can be argued that the accumulation of top schools in the Northeast reflects the fact these schools were among the earliest formed, and they have had a longer time to accumulated a good reputation. Also, the Northeast tends to have high income levels, supporting big endowments. The shortage of top 50 schools in much of the center of the country may reflect low population densities—there is no huge population base located within 300 miles or so of, say, Montana. Some of the southern states have very low incomes historically, making it difficult to support top flight academic talent.
With the passage of time, the eastern dominance of the top schools may lessen a bit. Schools like Stanford and Duke have gained dramatically in the past half century as they have matured and the area surrounding them has grown dramatically and boomed economically. Distinguished universities have contributed to the economic boom of Silicon Valley and to a lesser extent the Research Triangle in North Carolina. This is starting to happen to a greater extent in such growing states as Texas, Florida, and Georgia as well. The flagship public schools in those states are improving, verging on Top 50 recognition.
Moreover, it is not altogether clear that attending the 75th best school in the country—a very good quality institution—reduces one’s economic chances in life as opposed to graduating from the 25th top institution. Promoting academic excellence may be worthwhile, but as with everything in life, there are costs as well as benefits.