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Geography Shapes Equity and Opportunity in Higher Education, Paper Finds

February 03, 2016


​When thinking about where to go to college, many students simply don’t have the option to consider schools located outside of their own communities. For place-bound students, many of whom are “post-traditional” students, postsecondary choices are made according to proximity to home and work, a new paper finds.

"Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century,” an ACE-commissioned paper authored by Nicholas Hillman and Taylor Weichman of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, explores how where students live affects their options for attending college. This 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.

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

“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. “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.”

Attending their local community college might be the only option for students who live in an “education desert,” defined 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.

As a result, community colleges enroll more than half of all students who live in what the authors define as education deserts, the paper finds.

The private higher education sector, nonprofit and for-profit, accounts for less than 15 percent of total enrollments in education deserts.  And while online learning may hold promise in certain educational environments, research has yet to show that distance learning provides quality equal to or greater than place-based learning.

There are likely to be pockets within education deserts where some students are served very well by their local institutions and others are not. However, this paper draws attention to the fact that the opportunity to attend college varies by geography, especially when communities do not have the capacity to meet the educational needs of local residents.

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.

Most education deserts are in rural and moderately sized communities, 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, according to the paper.

Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) play a unique 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. “The purpose of this paper is to ask questions and to spur dialogue and continued research in this area. We need an honest, evidence-based conversation about the so-called choices available to our nation’s students, especially those who live in areas not flush with educational opportunity.”

The paper recommends additional research in this area and expanding opportunities in education deserts to ensure students have access to research, upper-level coursework or academic programs not delivered in the community college setting. It also advocates that federal and state policymakers use this new information in policy and research discussions about college choice and prioritize the role geography plays in shaping and constraining educational opportunity.

MEDIA CONTACT: Megan Cotten ▪ (202) 939-9433 ▪

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