Education deserts: How geography impacts access

Considering most students go to college closer to home, students in rural areas have far fewer college options.
By: | January 10, 2020
So-called "education deserts" impact students in rural and urban areas who have limited postsecondary options because of affordability or a lack of institutions.So-called "education deserts" impact students in rural and urban areas who have limited postsecondary options because of affordability or a lack of institutions.

A new map published by the Jain Family Institute seeks to draw more attention to another college access hurdle: geography.

Considering most students go to college close to home, the Institute’s researchers have developed the “School Concentration Index” to measure the number of options students have in different parts of the country and how a lack of competition in more rural areas may impact affordability.

“Tuition-free public universities alone cannot resolve inequalities in access across the country—indeed, rather than ‘choking out’ for-profits, the distribution of public colleges and universities appears to create markets for them in areas without a proximate public option,” the Institute’s researchers wrote in a blog accompanying the interactive map.

“Stark geographic disparities call for reconsidering and reassessing the demand and supply forces that are at play in the higher education market,” they wrote.


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An October report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that “nearly 41 million American adults live 25 miles or more from the nearest university or college, or in areas where only a single community college offers accessible public higher education.”

The report, however, highlights strategies used in rural communities in California, Indiana and Texas, that have worked to expand postsecondary opportunities.

And around the country, organizations such as College Possible and College Advising Corps have extended virtual advising to rural high schools students to help them with the college search and application process, according to the Hechinger Report.


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Rural students also could be getting a little help from Congress. A new bill, The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act, would support partnerships between school districts, colleges and the business community to help students enroll, graduate and find jobs, according to the Associated Press.

University of Wisconsin researcher Nicholas Hillman has identified education deserts in urban and suburban areas as well. In 2016, he told University Business that two of the largest education deserts in the nation existed in Columbia, South Carolina, and the area around Lexington-Lafayette, Kentucky.

Each community features a flagship state school (University of South Carolina and the University of Kentucky), but their acceptance rates had fallen below broad-access. The smaller private schools in those communities didn’t cover the access gap, Hillman told UB.

“The access issue has been hijacked by economists who believe that if we get better information into the hands of consumers, they will shop around,” Hillman said. “But that doesn’t fit into the reality of working-class families.”


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