Academic Common Market Student Demographic Analysis

Publication March 202416 pages

The Academic Common Market is a tuition-savings program that allows students to pursue uncommon academic programs not offered in their home state at in-state tuition rates. Composed of 15 participating Southern states, the ACM represents a collaborative educational initiative that extends beyond geographical boundaries. Participant data for the Academic Common Market program reveals the economic, racial and geographic composition of the communities in which ACM students live, signaling disparities in program participation. 



This brief reveals stark differences in the socioeconomic backgrounds of students participating in the Academic Common Market. Specifically, it indicates that there are fewer students from low-income, rural and urban communities represented in the program. 

First, middle-income areas significantly dominate the landscape in which ACM-certified students live, compared to their lower-income and upper-income counterparts. In the period between fall 2011 to fall 2023, the prevalence of ACM students coming from middle-income ZIP code areas was over four times higher than those from either lower- or upper-income ZIP code areas, making up just over 80% of students. Despite this trend, the ACM saw a 52% increase in students from low-income areas between 2011 and 2021. 

Furthermore, ACM students are more likely to reside in suburban and predominantly white ZIP code areas. Using the urbanization delineations from the National Center for Health Statistics (Appendix A.4), SREB found that the prevalence of suburban residency among ACM students is eight and nine times higher than for urban or rural settings. As the proportion of urban and suburban students fluctuates, the program has seen a 40% decrease in the representation of rural students receiving certification between 2011 and 2023.  

The data also reveals trends related to the pandemic from 2019 to 2023, specifically relating to the economic makeup of the program. Starting in 2022, SREB is witnessing a resurgence in ACM certification among students from middle and upper-income areas, leaving their peers from lower-income neighborhoods to play catch-up

The subsequent analysis examines who received certification and where they came from during the last 12 years of the ACM program. By examining ZIP codes as a proxy for income, race, and geography, we delve into the geographical roots of ACM-certified students and evaluate how the socio-economic attributes of these regions have evolved over time, while concurrently exploring the potential link between specific socio-economic backgrounds and the production of ACM students. 

The dataset used for this analysis contains information about 34,918 ACM-certified students between the beginning of the 2011 fall semester to the end of the 2023 fall semester. Further information about the methods, limitations and definitions relevant to this report can be found in the print version.

Where do ACM Students Come From?

Between 2011 and 2023, 34,918 students have been certified in the Academic Common Market program across the Southern Region.

Almost half of all ACM Students come from Georgia, Maryland, or Virginia. 

The graph shows that between 2011 and 2023, a substantial portion of ACM students originated from just three states: Georgia, Maryland and Virginia. Georgia is the leading exporter, accounting for 25.6% of ACM students, followed by Maryland and Virginia. In fact, over 45% of all ACM students have come from the Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Roswell, Georgia; and Washington, D.C.; Arlington, Virginia; and Alexandria, Maryland metropolitan areas. 

These three states together contribute a proportion of students that exceeds the combined total of the other thirteen states. This data underscores the significant role that Georgia, Maryland and Virginia play in shaping the ACM program’s participant demographics. 

The following parts of the analysis report on data from 20,510 unique students whose ZIP codes have been made available by ACM state coordinators. Appendix B.3 include more information about data reporting by state. 

ACM certified four times more students from middle-income areas than lower- and upper-income students combined. 

The data regarding ACM certification patterns indicates that the program certified students from middle-income areas at a significantly higher rate compared to both lower and upper-income areas.

A snapshot of the income distribution for the 2022 ACM cohort paints a clear picture: half of the 2022 ACM cohort hails from ZIP code areas where the median income exceeds $99,764. Furthermore, the top 25% of ACM students in 2022 originated from ZIP codes with a median income above $128,682, underlining that the majority of the 2022 cohort originated from areas characterized by middle-class households.

Applying income tier thresholds based on the 2022 Pew Research report How the American Middle Class Has Changed in the Past Five Decades, our analysis reveals that in 2022, 83.5% of students came from middle-income areas, while 5.4% originated from upper-income areas and 11.1% came from lower-income area. This pattern remains consistent over the long term, with figures between 2011 and 2023 indicating that 80.2% of students have originated from middle-income areas, 5.8% from upper-income areas and 14.1% from lower-income areas. Note that the percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding. 

On average, students participating in the ACM program from middle-income areas have been more than four times higher than those from either lower- or upper-income areas. 

Students from lower-income areas are on the rise. 

Despite the pronounced difference in the proportions of students from the various income tiers, a closer examination of these trends over the years reveals dynamic changes in the program’s composition. 

When assessing the period from 2011 to 2023, it becomes evident that among the three income tiers, the upper and lower-income groups have experienced the most substantial shifts. From 2011 to 2021, there was a 52% increase in the proportion of students hailing from lower-income ZIP code areas, reaching its peak at 18.4% in 2021. Conversely, the proportion of students originating from upper-income ZIP code areas has markedly dwindled, starting at nearly 10% in 2011 and eventually shrinking to a mere 0.5% in 2021. 

This trend corresponds with a broader nationwide shift in the demographic composition of college students. According to Pew Research Center, between 1996 and 2016, undergraduate students increasingly came from low-income families, especially at less selective four-year colleges, two-year colleges and private, for-profit. While the ACM primarily collaborates with public four-year institutions at the bachelor’s degree level and above, 84% of ACM students seek bachelor’s degrees, suggesting the relatively modest income shifts witnessed in our data align with the existing landscape of college-bound students across the nation. 

Moreover, regional educational programs have actively promoted access and affordability initiatives for low-income students. Open Educational Resource initiatives within the SREB region advocate for using free educational materials and textbooks, addressing the financial burden faced by college students. As highlighted in the 2021 SREB Fact Book, college students can spend over $1,200 per year on academic materials, a cost that is most burdensome for low-income students. Initiatives like OER have demonstrated success, as indicated by 2020 and 2023 reports from Bay View Analytics, which revealed that 38% of postsecondary institution professors reported using OER resources for required course materials in 2022, an increase from 15% in 2019. These initiatives play a vital role in alleviating financial challenges for low-income students and contribute to the broader efforts to enhance access and affordability in higher education. 

How was participation in the ACM impacted by the pandemic? 

Between 2018 to 2023, the volume of ACM certifications declined. Students from middle- and upper-income ZIP code areas experienced the most significant drop in ACM certifications immediately after the pandemic. However, during the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years, certifications for students from middle and upper-income ZIP code areas rose while certifications for students from low-income ZIP code areas did not show the same recovery.  

During the 2022-2023 academic year, certifications for ACM students from middle- and upper-income areas increased more rapidly than for students living in lower-income areas, highlighting that students from low-income areas have not rebounded to the same extent as their peers.  

Overall, the data suggests that as the ACM program has been recovering from an enrollment drop during the pandemic, certification numbers for students from low-income areas have not recovered to the same extent as those from middle and upper-income areas. In fact, the percentage of students from lower-income areas is now lower than it was just before the pandemic began, despite the previous 10-year trend of increasing representation from this demographic. 

The typical ACM student comes from predominantly white and suburban areas. 

The American Community Survey reveals the racial and ethnic makeup of each ZIP code in the United States. By matching this information with SREB data, we found the overarching racial and ethnic makeup of the communities from which ACM students originate. This data reflects the makeup of the communities in which ACM students live, rather than the makeup of the students themselves. 

The average student in the ACM program comes from a predominantly white area. Specifically, they come from an area where 62.9% of the population is white, 17.1% is Black, and 9.1% is Hispanic. The diversity index highlights that within the typical ACM student’s ZIP code area, there is a 56.1% chance that two randomly chosen residents will come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

In more tangible terms, the average ACM student comes from an area where a resident is 3.7 times more likely to be white than Black and 6.9 times more likely to be white than Hispanic. This insight closely aligns with demographic patterns found in urban and rural areas.  

Studies in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and Pew Research Center reveal that urban neighborhoods tend to exhibit greater racial and ethnic diversity compared to suburban and rural locales. While white Americans have become a minority in urban counties, they are still a majority for around 9 in 10 suburban and rural counties.  

For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program estimated that in 2022, Atlanta housed a population comprised of 41% white, 48% Black and 5% Hispanic residents. This stands in stark contrast to the demographic distribution in the average ACM student’s hometown. 

In line with the connection between race and geography, SREB found that that the majority of ACM students predominantly reside in suburban areas:  

Mapping student ZIP codes to their counties, we found that most ACM students have been suburban residents. The proportion of rural students has also decreased since 2011. 

In 2011, rural students constituted 10.5% of the ACM student body, but this proportion has decreased by more than a third since then. Currently, only 6.3% of ACM students originate from rural areas. During this time, suburban students have seen an increase in representation, while urban student proportions have experienced fluctuations. 

In summary, when considering 2011 to 2023, an average of 81.2% of students were classified as suburban residents, with 10.1% being urban and 8.7% rural. The prevalence of ACM students being suburban residents was eight and nine times higher than for being urban or rural residents. 

Implications and Opportunities

The analysis above has shown that between 2011 to 2023, the typical ACM students lived in suburban, predominantly white, middle-income areas, with a smaller representation from low-income, rural and racially diverse areas. Specifically: 

  • Post-Pandemic Re-engagement: Students living in lower-income areas have shown limited re-engagement with the ACM program after the pandemic, whereas those in middle and upper-income areas have returned to participation more noticeably. This trend alerts us to potential disparities in program accessibility to mitigate the effects of the pandemic based on income stratification. 
  • Middle-income majority, lower income growth: Throughout the past 12 years of the program, students from middle-income areas have made up most ACM students. At the same time, there was a 52% growth in the proportion of students from lower-income areas from 2011 to 2021. 
  • Suburban, white majority, Rural decline: The ACM program’s predominant demographic composition consists of students hailing from suburban areas and predominantly white communities. There has been a decline in the representation of students from rural backgrounds. 

ACM Data Underscores Factors Shaping Higher Ed at Large

The interplay of economic, geographic and racial demographics for communities represented in the Academic Common Market underscores the intricate web of factors shaping higher education demographics at large.  

One such trend is the increasing growth of the suburban population. Studies by Lichter in 2023 and Pew Research Center in 2020 reveal that while suburban areas are becoming more diverse, most of the American suburban population remains non-Hispanic white. This demographic pattern is mirrored in the ACM, with most students coming from suburban areas for which the average racial and ethnic composition is predominantly white. 

Moreover, existing research highlights the connection between suburban areas and their wealth, apart from just race. The same 2020 report by Pew Research Center noted that suburban areas are typically associated with higher incomes compared to urban areas, although the income gap has been narrowing. In 2018, the average household income for suburban areas was $101,000, higher than the income for the urban core by $9,000. In 2000, this gap was $13,000. Among undergraduate students specifically, data from the 2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, as reported by Pew in May 2019, showed that among four-year institutions, 46% of dependent students came from lower-middle to middle-income families, while 33% came from families in or near poverty. Middle-income households dominate both the makeup of undergraduate students as well as the national suburban landscape. 

By focusing on the socioeconomic characteristics highlighted both in our program and nationwide, we can identify who is left behind, namely low-income and rural students. The lower representation of rural students is compounded by several factors. First, rural areas, in general, have smaller populations than suburban and urban areas. According to the Rural School and Community Trust’s 2019 edition of Why Rural Matters: The Time is Now, the limited representation of rural students is further exacerbated by the fact that students in rural areas are the least likely to attend college. The report notes that this discrepancy persists even though students in rural high schools are more likely to take dual-enrollment courses compared to students in suburban or urban high schools. 

Acknowledging the parallels between our program and the greater landscape, it becomes evident that addressing issues of access is a multifaceted endeavor that requires a comprehensive approach to bridge these disparities. Further, the demographic profile identified in this analysis emphasizes the importance of recognizing that these dynamics do not exist in isolation and that efforts to address one facet should be considered in a broader context.


Thus, while our data underscores the prevalence of suburban and middle-class communities that bring students to the ACM program, there are silver linings that merit our attention. It emphasizes the ongoing importance of initiatives aimed at broadening access to low-income communities, ensuring that more students can benefit from the ACM. Equally important is the pressing need to engage rural students in our programs, acknowledging the wealth of untapped potential in these areas. These students represent a crucial resource for enhancing workforce preparation and vitality in the South and fostering diversity and resilience in the region’s educational landscape.