Historical Geographic Distribution of American University: 1980/1981-2013/2014

(Map Color Scale: 0-0.1%-Navy Blue, 0.1-0.3%-Aqua/Teal, 0.3-0.6%-Light Green, 0.6-0.9%-Yellow, 0.9-2.0%-Orange, 2.0-4.0%-Grapefruit Red, 4.0-7.0%-Maroon, 7.0-12.0%-Purple, 12.0%-Brown.

Circular dot: 1980, Place marker: 2013)

My final project, which explores the evolving geographic distribution of the American University student body over the last 34 years, was an interesting adventure. A very wise person once said, “The road to success is not straight,” and most certainly, the road to finishing this project was not straight. From the beginning in February, I knew I wanted to somehow incorporate maps into my final projects.

Harkening back to my original post, I planned to observe the relationship between geography/location, and the price of runaway slaves through examining newspaper advertisements and classifieds. As readers of my blog noted, this could be ambitious, so I decided to narrow it down to a specific month and newspaper. However, after delving through what seemed like volumes of newspaper, I confronted several methodological quandaries imposed by my research design. Primarily, the ads themselves did not provide prices in a lot of cases. Thus, I would have to augment my design to account for the lack of ads that fit my criteria; meaning increasing the time frame and possibly including multiple newspapers. I could have neglected to expand the scope of the project, but my sample size would have been small bordering on negligent. The results of the study would not and could not have been conclusive in any form, rendering my research basically useless.

So how could I proceed ahead? I desired to conflate a relevant topic with accessible data. With my sustaining interest in geography, I decided to explore the expanding role of students at American University originating from increasingly diverse geographic regions in the United States through using Google Maps. To host my maps, I used Google Maps Engine Lite, a free version of their Google Maps Engine product that is available for purchase, and can host additional layers. I originally gathered data for the years 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2013, but without buying the Google Maps Engine product, I could not create layers for all of those years. Therefore, I selected 1980 (The first year the American University Academic Data Reference Book released information on geographic diversity). I went to the university archives and photocopied the data, and input it into a table on Google Maps.

To control for the disparity in the growth of the school since 1980 (6573 students) to last year, (12,817 students) (Counting bachelor, law, grad and part-time), I calculated the percentage of the students hailing from the given state by dividing that number by the total for the given year. I then established ranges in order to color code the numeric data so the map could be more visually friendly. The navy blue corresponds to 0-0.10%, the teal/aqua: 0.1-0.3%, the light green: 0.3-0.6%, the yellow: 0.6-0.9%, the orange: 0.9-2%, the grapefruit red: 2.0-4%, the maroon: 4.0-7.0%, the purple: 7.0-12%, and the brown: 12%-. The first layer of the map offers place marks for the year 1980, and the second layer, for 2013-2014. When combined, they demonstrate the shifts in geographic distribution that have occurred at American University over the last thirty-three years.


  • There will be less geographic distribution overall in 1980 compared to 2013.
  • The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states will account for at least 75% of the student body in 1980.
  • California will see the largest growth in enrollment over the 30 year period compared to any other state.
  • No state will see a decrease in enrollment over the 30 year period.
  • In general, the geographic distribution of the student body will remain on the East Coast in 2013-14.
  • “Red” States will be vastly under-represented.

Overview of the Geographic Distribution in 1980

In 1980-81, the majority of the American University student body lived within driving distance of campus (I’m from the Midwest, anything within 12 hours is driving distance). Of course, you could not commute, but judging from map, much of the student population was from the DMV, Philadelphia and New York City. In fact, roughly 60%, from (New Jersey, New York, the District of Columbia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland) could be home likely in 5 hours or so. However, rejecting one of my presumptions, if you add New England, the number hovers around 70%. Meanwhile, if you depart the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, only Ohio, Florida, Illinois and California possessed over 1% of the student body. Interestingly, California had almost the same amount of students as the rest of the states west of the Mississippi combined. The Plains, Midwest, South and Northwest, or largely Republican areas were virtually unrepresented at American University in 1980.

Overview of the Geographic Distribution in 2013

Predictably, the geographic distribution has expanded as time has elapsed. While there is substantially more geographic diversity today than there was thirty years ago, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast still comprise much of the student population. However, today within those states/district (Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, District of Columbia), only 44% compared to 60% thirty years ago originate from those areas. The Midwest, South, Plains and Northwest still lag behind and remain underrepresented. So if the East Coast is seeing a drop (percentage-wise) in students, what states are today’s students coming from that they weren’t thirty years ago?

New Trends

Rise in Pacific Northwest and California

In 1980, less than two percent of American’s student body came from California, Oregon and Washington. Today, over seven percent does, more than three times more than just thirty years ago. California in particular has seen a meteoric ascension. More than seven times more California students go to school at AU today then in 1980, and approximately four times more Oregon and Washington students.

Rise in Colorado, Arizona and Texas

Colorado and Arizona, both states divided politically with one large city, have seen enrollment numbers swell intensely. Colorado has seen a 300% increase, while Arizona has seen close to a 500% increase. It is very likely that much of the student population from these two states comes from the Denver and Phoenix metropolitan areas, though the university does not release this information, so I can’t verify that assumption. Texas meanwhile has witnessed a 300% increase as well.

Fall in Florida and Ohio

Of students from Ohio, attendance has fallen 40%, while in Florida, by over half. It is hard to account for such a loss in student population, but I will speculate that in 1980, these applicants from these states were seen by the university as being “Geographically diverse.” In 1980, there were obviously far less applicants from other regions of the country, so greater numbers from Florida and Ohio could be admitted to increase perception of American as recruiting “Nationally.” However, with more applicants now applying from more diverse areas of the country, less applicants are likely being admitted from Ohio and Florida today compared to thirty years ago.

Fall in New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia

When you read “Fall in New Jersey and New York,” you probably thought to yourself, “How is it possible that there are less Jersey and New Yorker’s here then 30 years ago?” But it is true, American has actually seen a drop in enrollment in people from those two states, with a fall of roughly 30% for New Jersey students, and over 50% for New Yorker’s! The District has seen a comparable fall, with greater than a 50% drop as well. I think some of the reasons outlined above can answer the questions about why there has been such an intense drop. Admissions has become more competitive, and I also think its possible that applicants from these states, like applicants from California, Washington, Colorado, Arizona etc. are beginning to apply to more nationally diverse schools as well, so therefore it is quite possible that there are less applicants coming from these areas.

Macro Analysis

According to Airlines for America, the average cost of flying since 1978 has fallen more than 50%.

A look at airfare prices 1980-2010

A look at airfare prices 1980-2010

Because of cheaper transportation costs, new doors are now open to high school applicants to matriculate at colleges that would have once been impossible because of the distance and high cost of travel. Potential students from perhaps lesser wealth are now able to afford to look and possibly attend these schools many miles from home. I think that it is also true that with increasing globalization, more people are comfortable today with the idea of sending their children far away to school, knowing that they are only a flight away. In addition, families are more spread out today then they were thirty years ago, allowing for a more fluid environment. Finally, new, innovative technology like skype, email, cell phones and with them, texting, have emerged which allow students and their families to remain in closer contact then they ever could have imagined thirty years ago, when I assume mail was the primary source of communication..

On the opposite side of the spectrum, American has benefitted from lower travel costs and ameliorated technology in the sense that not only have they been inundated with volumes of applications from new places, but those applicants who become students are free advertising for them as well. When they go home for the holidays, or return home after attending American, American receives increased visibility in the area, which in turn promotes and raises awareness of the university. This makes the school more familiar to distant potential applicants, and therefore makes them more likely to apply and attend (Basically like an admissions pyramid scheme).

Possible Impact of United States Migration Trends

Over the past thirty years, migration trends have led the South and West to gain population, while cities along the Rust Belt (Indianapolis, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland) have lost population. While California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Texas and Arizona have all seen a growth in population over the last thirty years as well as a rise in attendance at American, I tend to doubt that there is a positive correlation between the two measures. For one, other states that have seen population growth across the South, like Georgia, Alabama and Florida are not seeing a rise in enrollment at American. Therefore, I think it is basically insignificant that states like New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all of which are losing population, are suffering from lower enrollment numbers. This is definitely not as a result of migration trends.

Concluding Thoughts

If the University released more specific information relating to the geographic background of each student, I think even more could be ascertained by the research. It is certainly veritable that the university is trying to increase its geographic diversity, and I do not think it is outside the realm to say that if say you were a high school senior from Montana with equal statistics to a kid from New Jersey, the Montana student would possess a decisive advantage. Over the next thirty years, I think we will see the largest increases coming from Texas and California, and I would not be surprised if Colorado sees a large rise as well. Analyzing the student body, the University tends to attract a large foundation of politically active applicants, the majority of them liberal, coming from liberal areas. I think if anything, the most corresponding, telling variable in this study is political climate of the particular state. Almost the entirety of the student body comes from states that voted Obama in the 2012 election, and many of the states like New York and California, and the District of Columbia which are all decidedly blue, supply much of the student population.

Regarding my Prior Assertions:

  • There will be less geographic distribution overall in 1980 compared to 2013. (True)
  • The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states will account for at least 75% of the student body in 1980. (False)
  • California will see the largest growth in enrollment over the 30 year period compared to any other state. (True)
  • No state will see a decrease in enrollment over the 30 year period. (False)
  • In general, the geographic distribution of the student body will remain on the East Coast in 2013-14. (True-but definitely shifting West)
  • “Red” States will be vastly under-represented. (True)

Predictions for the 2040 Geographic Distribution of the American Student Body

  • California and Texas will see the largest rises in Enrollment.
  • Of all the states with negligent enrollment today, New Mexico and Tennessee will see the largest expansion.
  • Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, DC, New Jersey will all continue to see downward trends in enrollment in 2040 as the University pushes to become more geographically diverse.
  • The South and Midwest will still not supply many students to the University; growth will remain static.



One thought on “Historical Geographic Distribution of American University: 1980/1981-2013/2014

  1. Adam, What a change! How did you come up with the new topic and know you would be able to find the numbers? My big critique is that the spatial visualization is not easy to digest. The complex color coding scheme makes it harder to read than if I just looked at your spreadsheet and numbers. Is there a way you could more convincingly represent the changes visually or is that just a weakness of the tool? Certainly having the dots and markers change proportionally in size would make sense. You make an interesting argument about the change in travel costs. I am not, however, convinced that covers everything. What about how the system of higher education has changed in those areas? It seems that would be a big factor. And do you have any evidence regarding how applications are weighted to back your other claim? If so, cite it.

    If you were to do it again, how might you do it differently?

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