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Education deserts add to equity concerns

Geography limits college access for lower-income, first-gen students
University Business, May 2016
More than half of students go to colleges within 50 miles of their homes.
More than half of students go to colleges within 50 miles of their homes.

The twin goals of affordability and diversity dominate the nation’s push to expand access to higher ed, but another critical factor—geography—is drawing more attention for the role it plays in where students go to college.

With more than half selecting colleges less than 50 miles from home, there’s growing concern about “education deserts”—localities that lack four-year institutions with acceptance rates 75 percent or above, or have only one two-year school.

“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,” says Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But that doesn’t fit into the reality of working-class families.”

In Hillman’s American Council on Education report, “Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of ‘Place’ in the Twenty-First Century,” he says these families—often lower-income, first generation or minority—tend to search only among a limited range of institutions near home. That may be because of a job, children or aging relatives to care for, or powerful community cultural ties.

Hillman’s study uses a 75 percent acceptance rate to define a broad-access institution, and he pinpoints education deserts in urban, suburban and rural areas.

For instance, he identifies two of the largest education deserts in the nation as 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 have fallen below broad-access. The smaller private schools in those communities can’t cover the access gap, Hillman says.

Deserts may exist for adult students even if a community has broad-access institutions, says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).“If they’re not able to enroll full-time—because they’re limited by poverty, and work and family schedules—the schools are not options,” Hawkins says.

The movement to phase out remedial education and raise admission standards may also create education deserts in communities with a higher number of first-generation and underserved students, says Anne-Marie Nunez, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Covering the gap

Few experts suggest states scramble to build new universities in education deserts.

But UT San Antonio, for example, sends faculty about 60 miles away to teach classes that expand course offerings at the more isolated Southwest Texas Junior College. The classes mix online instruction with face-to-face lectures, says Nunez,
who studies Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.

The problem has been confronted more aggressively by K12 schools. Another solution, therefore, could be creating a higher ed version of the Title I program, which funds K12 schools that serve disadvantaged students, Hillman says. “There are some college presidents out there who would probably be very interested in thinking of their institutions as the Title I workhorses of higher ed.”

Other recommendations include allowing community colleges to offer more four-year degrees, sending admissions officers to recruit students from education deserts, and having state flagships form partnerships with smaller private schools to offer academic programs in underserved areas, he says. Hawkins of NACAC also suggests more dual-enrollment and early-college high school programs in these regions.

In addition, public colleges and universities could launch and expand branch campuses and similar programs to underserved areas, says Brian Sponsler, director of postsecondary and workforce development at the Education Commission of the States.

“We have overestimated how mobile students actually are,” he says, “and it has created a blind spot about the role place has in dictating college options and choices.”

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