online education innovation

Why higher ed should be concerned about “education deserts”


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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