Colleges, Universities Are Disproportionately Metropolitan Institutions

March 28, 1998

Colleges, Universities Are Disproportionately Metropolitan Institutions Boston, Mass. --- The often bucolic picture of U.S. universities and colleges is an image that may have been true in the 19th century, but does not exist today, according to a Penn State geographer.

"More than half of four-year universities and colleges and two year colleges are now metropolitan," says Jennifer Ann Adams, a Ph.D. candidate in geography. "This is very different from what existed in the 19th century."

Nine colleges were established during the colonial period, and these were likely to be located near the larger trade and commercial centers of the time. From 1800 to 1900, the number of colleges in the United States increased dramatically including 1,100 of today's colleges.

"Nineteenth century colleges were typically in rural areas because views of 'appropriate' learning environments led religious groups to locate colleges and universities away from the 'corruption' of cities," says Adams. "Religious colleges appeared virtually in every place, with Catholic and Protestant institutions vying for locations and with towns viewing a college as a prestige acquisition."

In 1880, Ohio had 37 colleges and a population of only 3 million people, while England had four colleges with a population of 23 million people. The Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862 transformed American education, but its focus on technical education and agricultural extension reinforced the tendency for colleges to be located in rural areas. "Some scholars argue that this anti-urban bias in higher education siting continues today," Adams told attendees today (March 28) at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Boston. "However, 20th-century colleges are more frequently located in metropolitan areas and this makes a difference for urban economies."

In 1994, 15.2 million students attended institutes of higher education, and colleges and universities employed more than 1.2 million workers making up 61 percent of all education workers.

"Urban geographers have long been interested in urban health, education and welfare issues," said Adams. "Research into urban higher education, however, has been limited in geography."

The Penn State researcher looked at the distribution of higher education institutions by county and divided the counties into those in metropolitan areas and those in nonmetropolitan areas. She looked at all accredited four-year universities and colleges and all accredited two-year colleges. Vocational-technical schools were excluded.

Forty percent of all U.S. counties have at least one higher education institution. More than 80 percent of metropolitan counties contain at least one four-year institution, while more than 70 percent of metropolitan counties contain at least one two-year institution. Eighty-four percent of the largest metropolitan counties -- those with populations of 1 million or more-- had at least one university or college in 1994.

"Just as higher education institutions are concentrated in metropolitan areas, enrollment patterns also reflect an urban emphasis," said Adams. "The growth in number of two-year colleges between 1964 and 1994 is responsible for democratizing higher education and increasing enrollments.

"The public's perception is that higher education is dispersed and people cannot afford to attend these institutions unless they are geographically and economically accessible," she added.. "One thing that is clear from this preliminary research is that the majority of institutions are near where people live today."
EDITORS: Ms. Adams may be reached at 814-237-4309 or at

Penn State

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