• Mickey McGlasson

Where Are All of the College Students Anyway?



The neighborhood pool is crowded, the garden in the backyard is overflowing with vegetables, and the lemonade stand down the street is thriving. It’s official: summer is in full bloom.


But not everywhere in the US sees an infusion of liveliness this time of year. In fact, in many places—particularly so-called “college towns”—summer is a notably quieter time of year.


Indeed, if you live near one of the 7,000-or-so colleges and universities in the United States, you may have noticed a marked lack of hustle and bustle lately. That’s really no surprise when you consider that there were over 20 Million college students in the US during the 2018-19 school year. (Of those, 3 Million are “distance-only” students—i.e., those who only attend classes online—and are not used in the calculations to follow.)


Colleges and universities play a major role in many local and regional economies, in both urban and rural areas. In most places, they are the most vital ingredient in developing tomorrow’s workforce. In short, higher-ed institutions and their students are at the center of much of the work that Fourth Economy does. So let’s take a second to consider where those college students are… and, depending on how you look at it, the answers will either be pretty obvious or will likely include some surprises.


Of the 3,142 counties in the US, only 1,436—fewer than half—have a registered college or university. No surprise: the ones that do are generally more populous counties. (But there are plenty of exceptions to that statement.)


The largest county in the US by population, Los Angeles County, also has the largest total college student population. (In case you were wondering, yes, New York is a more populous city than Los Angeles, but its five boroughs are actually five separate counties. If we used cities instead of counties, New York would be the highest in total college student enrollment.)


A more interesting way to cut the data, however, is to look at the ratio of college students (excluding online-only students) who are enrolled at local institutions to resident population of counties. One might reasonably expect counties with well-known college towns—such as College Station (Brazes County, TX), or Ithaca (Tompkins County, NY)—to top the list. Sure enough, each of these do come out with very high ratios of college students to residents, but there are plenty of other, more rural places that have similarly high ratios.


Want to explore how your county compares? Check out the map below. Click on a county to explore the data. Areas that show up in darker purple have more college students enrolled per resident. And for a more robust portrait of county-level community and economic analysis, visit Fourth Economy’s Community Index.



Note: this analysis is based on data from IPEDS data and US Census Bureau.

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