Home and Away: College-bound kids don't stray far from home

69 percent of last year's graduating class in the region chose colleges within 100 miles of Downtown / First of two parts

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Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette photoAbove, these are just 10 of the Canon-McMillan High School Class of 2005 who are now attending West Virginia University. In all, 22 of last year's graduates from the Washington County school district went to WVU. Seated in the front row and holding Lindsey Cole across their laps are, from left, Lindsay LaSota, Hayley Dino, Katie McDade and Karri Lisowski. From the left in the back row are Shaun Greene, Blake Barnes, Stephen Jacobs, Rich Adkins and Andrew Andronas.
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Online graphic: See a graphic that shows more information about the colleges selected by Western Pennsylvania high school graduates in 2005.
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Online graphic: Some of the criteria that students used when selection a college or university.
Online graphic: A map of the U.S. showing where students attended college.
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Join authors Eleanor Chute and Bill Schackner for a live online discussion about this series from 1 to 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 4. Click here a half hour before the session to log-in early and post questions in advance.
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"Who Gets In?" is a comprehensive report on the college admissions system, examining some of the factors shaping successful applications and including in-depth observations and advice from college admissions officers. Click here to the comprehensive report.

When 2005 Canon-McMillan High graduate Andrew Andronas was selecting a college, his final decision came down to this: Should he play football at a small school -- Waynesburg College -- or be a fan at a large school -- West Virginia University?

Distance from home was never an issue -- he wanted to stay close. Both schools are less than an hour from his home in Canonsburg.

"You can go home whenever you need to in case of emergency or when you want to be home," said the 19-year-old, now a WVU freshman.

Home -- or at least close to home -- is where the heart is for many Western Pennsylvania students.

A Post-Gazette study of the college-going behavior of more than 13,800 members of last year's graduating classes at 95 high schools in Allegheny and surrounding counties found that 69 percent of them chose schools within just 100 miles of Downtown.

The study included every public high school in Allegheny County except Baldwin-Whitehall and Sto-Rox, for which data were unavailable; all Catholic high schools in the county; some other religious and private schools; and a sampling from nine nearby counties.

Nationwide, many students choose schools close to home, too, but Western Pennsylvania students appear to have a particular penchant for staying close.

According to a survey of college freshmen nationwide last fall by UCLA, 56 percent attended a school within 100 miles of their home.

The Post-Gazette findings fit what many guidance counselors see in their schools.

"I think they all say they want to go far away in their junior year," said Sandra Whetsell, guidance counselor at Jefferson-Morgan High School in Greene County. "By the time they're seniors, they'll look at schools much closer."

High school graduation opens a world of possibilities, with about 7,000 higher education choices nationwide -- counting colleges, universities, community colleges and technical, trade and career schools.

But 85 percent of the region's students in the Class of 2005 going on to higher education planned to attend just 100 schools, and two-thirds were going to just 25.

"It's more of a provincial area," said South Park High School counselor Frank DiPasquale. "Every year, a few go far away, but most are sticking within the Pittsburgh area or a couple of hours [away]."

The attraction of proximity is clear at Indiana Area High School, where more than a third of last year's education-bound graduates planned to go to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, less than two miles from their high school.

To be sure, there are many college choices near Pittsburgh -- 64 four-year colleges within 100 miles of Downtown and an additional 208 within 200 miles, by a federal count.

Most commonly, Western Pennsylvania students choose colleges that are on this side of the Allegheny Mountains. Within the state system, students prefer IUP, California, Slippery Rock, Clarion and Edinboro, not the state schools in the East.

Chris Markle, director of admissions at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Snyder County, said his counterparts at a number of schools in Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey say Pittsburgh "is a tough market to crack."

To native Pittsburghers, said Edward Reppa, director of guidance at Central Catholic High School in Oakland, "If you have to cross a river, go through a tunnel, go over a mountain, that's pretty far away even if it's only 20 minutes."

Bob Alcorn, guidance department chairman at Fox Chapel Area High School, said, "Those mountains really divide our state. Our kids will go to Ohio -- Denison, Wooster, Case Western and Miami -- before they'll think about going East."

Geographic clusters
Where students go to high school is an important variable in determining where they go to college.

Leechburg High School students in Armstrong County typically don't go to California University of Pennsylvania, but California was the top choice among state system schools for Steel Valley students in the Class of 2005.

WVU was one of the top picks of Canon-McMillan students last year, with 22 enrolling as freshmen, while only one Penn Hills student planned to go there.

Rich Adkins, 18, of Canonsburg, who is Mr. Andronas' roommate, said, "If your friends are going there, you want to come.''

A college's popularity among students in a high school can come in waves. While 13 Steel Valley students chose California last fall, only about a half-dozen have applied to California for the coming year.

The difference, Steel Valley High School counselor Dan Bugel said, "might be influenced as much socially as it may be academically."

Sister Brigid Marie Grandey, assistant superintendent for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said she has attended Catholic high school graduations at which many students planned to go to schools close to home and others where many planned to be away "because they know you can do that."

At Greensburg Central Catholic High School, where she was once the principal, Sister Brigid Marie said, students had set goals of going to a top college when they were in elementary school.

"Their friends went there and their brothers and sisters went there. It was just in the air."

C. Grant Williams, supervisor of guidance in Mt. Lebanon, where 49 students last year planned to go to some of the 50 top-ranked schools, one of the highest among high schools studied, said the students "feed among themselves. They talk among themselves. They challenge each other to go to that level."

Which high-powered schools they attend varies year to year. Mr. Williams recalls one year when seven students were admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; last year none planned to go to MIT, but four were headed to Princeton.

Overall, the most popular choice among Allegheny County high school students was Community College of Allegheny County, selected by about 16 percent of the students. Interest was so strong that it was still No. 1 when all schools surveyed in the region were included.

The popularity of CCAC, with its low tuition, underlines the importance of money in making college choices.

"A lot of times they just want to go to some of the schools that recruit them for different types of scholarships. Whoever gives them the money," said Lowell Patterson, guidance counselor at Westinghouse High School in Homewood.

Hope Henry, counselor at Woodland Hills High School, added that travel costs for schools farther away can be prohibitive, keeping people closer to home.

At Greater Latrobe High School in Westmoreland County, counselor Barbara Castille said some students who could qualify for Ivy League schools choose less competitive schools where they can get more financial aid.

Among students who chose a nationally top-ranked school, Carnegie Mellon was the most common choice, attracting more students from the region than the next four most popular top schools -- University of Notre Dame, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and Oberlin College -- combined.

Among students headed for an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania was the most common choice, with the smallest number going to Dartmouth College.

Not only is Penn the top Ivy choice, but its dean of admissions, Lee Stetson, figures there's a "little better chance" of a Pennsylvania student getting into Penn than another Ivy because the school reaches out to the commonwealth. About 17 percent of its enrollment is from the state.

Among all students, the most popular out-of-state choice is WVU, which recruits heavily beyond its borders because of a shortage of high school graduates at home. Nearly half of WVU's freshmen come from outside the state.

Virginia Tech was the fourth most popular, even though it is about 320 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh. It did particularly well in Upper St. Clair, which listed 17 students planning to attend, and North Allegheny, with 15.

At some high schools, locations farther south are gaining popularity.

"With grandparents in the South, a lot more are looking south for schools because they have family connections," said Tony Indovina, guidance counselor at Shaler Area High School.

Students at the four elite private high schools in Allegheny County -- The Ellis School, Sewickley Academy, Shady Side Academy and Winchester Thurston School -- were more likely to choose private colleges and out-of-state schools than those at public high schools.

None of the four showed anyone in the Class of 2005 who planned to go to any of the 14 schools in the State System of Higher Education or a community college.

Nearly 80 percent of the elite high school graduates said they were going on to private colleges and universities, and about 70 percent were going out of state.

As demographics change, choices can change as well.

At Mars Area High School in Butler County, where more than a fifth of the students went out of state, Roberta Tritch, a counselor for 20 years, said that more families from out of state have moved in during the past five years.

"The students have a much broader outlook on where they can apply. Their parents have traveled and moved around a lot because of jobs," she said.

Education choices, too, can change over the summer -- or after a student arrives at school.

Curtis Kelly, 19, of Ross and a 2005 graduate of North Hills High School, chose the University of Alabama for its swimming team.

He liked his teammates, but he was building up debt quickly despite a partial scholarship, the academic program didn't meet his interests and he missed his family.

He moved home at the end of first semester, is taking some classes at CCAC and hopes to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh and resume his swimming career.

"My advice to any senior who is trying to decide where to go to college is to base their decision on every aspect of college and not just one," he said.

Tomorrow: Education writer Bill Schackner looks at how serendipity influences where students go to college. Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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