While most college students care about where their schools are located, the true importance of location doesn’t always come up when considering higher-education opportunities. There are still areas within the United States—especially in the Midwest—where post-secondary institutions are just too far away from where many people live.
According to a study by The Chronicle that analyzed nearly 1500 two- and four-year public colleges (excluding those with an acceptance rate lower than 30 percent), 11.2 million adult Americans live over an hour away from a public college. These areas, deemed education deserts, are largely rural; for instance, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming have the highest percentage of adults living 60+ minutes away from a college.
Strikingly, 29.5 percent of all Native Americans live in education deserts, and compared to white Americans, are five times more likely to live in areas without higher education. Their options for attending local colleges are often practically nonexistent.
Solving education inequality
Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, believes the best solutions for eradicating education deserts are multi-faceted. Making transfer documentation more streamlined between institutions is a step in the right direction, and allowing community colleges to offer more four-year programs would help as well, he says.
Hillman also supports more aggressive recruitment of rural students and better-funded shuttle services. In the public sector, policymakers could send more funding to rural colleges so they can more quickly achieve these goals while expanding their online class options for especially remote students.
Education deserts have existed for a long time in the U.S., but their deleterious effects must be addressed. Lawmakers and educators should learn as much as they can about the geographic difficulties preventing potential students from committing to a higher education.
“We have overestimated how mobile students actually are,” Hillman points out, “and it has created a blind spot about the role place has in dictating college options and choices.”
With deeper analysis and understanding, it will become easier to address these issues directly and provide the quality education and professional opportunities that many communities very likely want, but currently don’t have easy access to.