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Why higher ed should be concerned about “education deserts”

New brief discusses why geography is an important factor concerning equity in postsecondary education.


It’s the same concept that applies to food deserts: because travel to another source is not possible, and local access is limited, mostly rural area populations cannot obtain affordable, quality food. Now switch food to education and the concept is fairly clear.

This concept is discussed in a recent American Council on Education (ACE) report, which posits that the national dialogue on equity and college access doesn’t often take into account geography—and it should.

“For example, federal policy efforts like the College Scorecard, Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, and College Navigator all seek to get ‘better information’ into the hands of students with the hopes they will make ‘better choices’ about where to enroll,” write the report’s authors. “But for prospective students who live in communities with few educational options, their educational destinations are bound by whatever institution is nearby.”

“The current public dialogue around college choice doesn’t take into account that many students are unable to move long distances to attend school,” said Louis Soares, ACE’s vice president for policy research and strategy, in a statement. “Our own work has shown that the desire to live close to home has been a consistent factor over the last three decades for students deciding which college or university to attend, a trend that is exacerbated for low-income students.”

The ACE-commissioned paper, written by Nicholas Hillman, assistant professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis (ELPA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Taylor Weichman, education director at Wisconsin Technical College System of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, explores how where students live affects their options for attending college; it is the first paper in Viewpoints, a series by ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy that will explore pressing issues in higher education.

For the purpose of clarity, “education desert” is defined in the brief as a “place with either no colleges or universities located nearby or with one community college as the only local public broad-access institution. If there are two community colleges, or if there is a community college and a broad-access public university, then an area would not qualify as an education desert because the student has at least one public postsecondary alternative.”

Revealing Data on Education Deserts

According to core-based statistical areas and commuting zones data examined by the authors, the majority (57 percent) of incoming freshman attending public four-year colleges and universities enroll within 50 miles of their permanent home; and the farther a student lives from an institution, the less likely they are to enroll.

The authors also found that community colleges enroll more than half of all students who live in education deserts, with private higher education institutions, and nonprofits and for-profits accounting for less than 15 percent of total enrollments in education deserts.

Also, about 13 percent of the total student population attends college in education deserts, the majority of which are located in the Midwest and Great Plains states, while the fewest are in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.

(Next page: What education deserts means for higher education)


Though the report emphasizes that “there are likely to be pockets within education deserts where some students are served very well by their local institutions and others are not,” the brief is meant to draw attention to the issue that education desert students’ opportunities to attend college varies by geography, especially when communities do not have the capacity to meet the educational needs of local residents.

Online learning could be a helpful option; yet, not all students are self-motivated learners, and may prefer attending class in-person. Also, students living in homes without computers or with limited access to high-speed Internet may not see distance learning as a viable option, notes the report.

The authors also note that though education deserts also can exist in areas with large flagship universities (for example, in Lexington-Lafayette, KY, and Columbia, SC), “because the University of Kentucky and the University of South Carolina are moderately selective rather than broadly accessible institutions, prospective students have only one public alternative—a single community college— if they are not admitted to their flagships.”

The paper also highlights that Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) play a critical role in expanding access for students of color residing in education deserts. Across 135 counties, there are 37 MSIs enrolling approximately 327,000 students. Most of these colleges and universities are Hispanic-serving institutions, meaning they were not designated by federal statue but became MSIs through a changing enrollment profile given shifting demographics in the region.

“Geography will continue to be important for post-traditional college students, who will struggle to balance work, family and school responsibilities,” said Hillman in a statement. “The purpose of this paper is to ask questions and to spur dialogue and continued research in this area.”

The authors recommend additional research education deserts, as well as looking into opportunities to ensure students have access to research, upper-level coursework or academic programs not delivered in the community college setting.

For more in-depth information, including a map of education deserts, commentary from college and university leaders, a breakdown of data, and more, read the full report, “Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of ‘Place’ in the Twenty-First Century.

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