When Long Island native Ava Finnegan was applying to colleges, she almost exclusively looked at schools in the South.

A lot of students from her area end up at small, liberal arts schools in the Northeast, but she wanted the opposite of that — a college with school spirit, big-time sports and Greek life.

At first, Finnegan was anxious about fitting in. But the rising sophomore at the University of Georgia said her freshman year was even better than she hoped. She made friends with other out-of-state students, joined a sorority, and converted her family to be fans of the Bulldogs, one of the top teams in NCAA football.

“Everyone seems to be having that same idea to go south,” said Finnegan. “Because everyone you meet that’s out of state is from the North.”

Mirroring a migration of Northern workers to low-tax states in the South, students from New York, New Jersey and New England are now also heading to Southern colleges — seeking warmer weather, cheaper tuition and a more relaxed atmosphere at a time many campuses have become political battlegrounds.

In recent years, the growth in applications to Southern colleges has far surpassed those on the East Coast, which is where the bulk of liberal arts and Ivy League institutions are located. Applications to colleges in the South are up 50% since 2019, which compares to a less than 30% rise in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, Common Application data shows. Both Clemson University in South Carolina and Louisiana State University, for instance, saw a record number of students apply last year, with more than twice as many students enrolling from New York and New Jersey than 10 years ago.

With the cost of attendance at many top institutions stretching past $90,000 a year, a $55,000 price tag for an out-of-state student at the University of Alabama can seem like a bargain. A Bloomberg analysis recently found the return on investment at public flagship universities can far outperform more expensive liberal arts schools, when looking at costs and future earnings. But it’s not just prices that are motivating decisions. Social media images around college football, parties and ‘Bama rush are top of mind for applicants, many of whom had their high school years disrupted by the pandemic. As a result, more students are looking to let loose and move past cultural stereotypes that have kept previous generations of Northerners closer to home.

Students are interested in the South because of the “rah-rah football culture and the weather,” said Eric Sherman, an adviser at college counseling firm IvyWise. “If you’ve gone to a small high school where you haven’t had that sort of school spirit and that unifying culture, then absolutely I see a lot of students that are attracted to that.”

Heading South
In Bergen County, New Jersey, Lisa Esposito said her daughter wanted to be anywhere but the Northeast when she applied to college.

Alexandra, who attends Westwood Regional High School, initially liked the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi, in large part because of their popularity on social media. But once they decided those schools were too far, Esposito insisted they visit the University of Kentucky, which is also part of the Southeastern Conference, or SEC.

Initially, her daughter wasn’t interested. But once they visited, Alexandra was sold — so much so, that they put a deposit down by the time they left.

“All of a sudden the kids are all going to LSU and Alabama and Ole Miss,” Esposito said. “Five years ago, nobody from here went there — that was unheard of.”

The surge in interest is a boon to the bottom line of Southern universities at a time when colleges nationwide are bracing for a drop in enrollment. The class of 2025 is expected to have the highest number of high school seniors before a 15% drop by 2037, according to projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Fewer students could push schools to close, with smaller, less prestigious institutions most at risk. Already struggling with higher costs and the aftermath of Covid, at least 21 colleges and universities announced plans to close or merge with nearby schools this year, which is roughly double the annual average over the past decade, a Bloomberg analysis showed.

Ivy Criticisms
To be sure, applications to many East Coast colleges and universities are also on the rise. The University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College and Yale University all saw a record number of applications. Still, student protests that erupted across college campuses after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the subsequent bombardment of Gaza, have made families rethink their college lists.

Applications to Harvard University, which saw its president resign amid criticism of how the administration responded to the protests, fell 17% in the early decision cycle and 5% for regular decision.

In New York, Penn graduate Linda Quarles, said she’s grown concerned about the “decrease in viewpoint diversity and critical thinking” at Ivy League campuses. So when it came time for her daughter Ava to apply to colleges, Quarles agreed they should only look at universities in the South.

Her daughter, who wants to study something related to sports and attends the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, was drawn to big football schools. Meanwhile, Quarles said she was impressed by many universities’ academic programs — including at Georgia, where her daughter will start in the fall.

“The honors colleges are great and that’s how they’re actually getting a lot of the kids that would normally be going to other elite schools outside of the region,” Quarles said. “I felt like my daughter was having sort of an elite athlete-like recruitment experience.”

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.