Navigating Education Deserts


For students applying to colleges and universities, geography matters. Most public college students enroll within 50 miles of home, so location is more influential than policymakers think, a new study finds. (Inside Higher Ed)

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Discussion Ideas

  • The Inside Higher Ed article is about how students make choices about college. How do education policymakers traditionally help prospective college students make these choices?
    • “[T]o make better enrollment decisions, the story goes, students need money and information.” Policymakers have traditionally prioritized tuition rates and information about the academic and social atmosphere of universities.


  • Why might this College Scorecard-type system not be serving students as well as policymakers hope?
    • Prioritizing money and information ignores the enormous role geography plays in college enrollment decisions.
      • At public four-year colleges, the median distance students live from home is 18 miles.
      • At private four-year colleges, the median distance is 46 miles.
      • At public two-year colleges, the median distance is only 8 miles.


  • Why do you think distance and geography shape student decisions about college?
    • The authors of the new study identify three major reasons:
      • Distance elasticity. Distance elasticity is defined as “the negative of the percentage change in quantity demanded divided by the percentage change in distance.” In other words, for most students, the likelihood of enrolling in a college decreases as its distance increases. Affluent students are less affected by distance.
      • Spillover effects. Simply having a college or university nearby is associated with high levels of postsecondary enrollment. This could be because people move to places where higher education options are available, but it is more likely that the location of an institution encourages local residents to attend. Having a college or university nearby reduces transportation costs, increases the “collective consciousness” of local options, and may even result in partnerships with local schools and other organizations to create college pathways that would otherwise be unavailable to local residents.
      • Community ties. Because of family responsibilities, cultural norms, or factors related to working while enrolled in school, many students stay close to home for college.


  • Why do you think distance and geography are overlooked when policymakers help students make decisions about college?
    • According to the paper’s introduction, popular misconceptions about students often focus on their digital lives. “Perhaps it is overlooked because we assume geography is irrelevant in the Internet age. Maybe we assume every community in the United States has a college or university nearby, or that students are highly mobile.”


  • The title of the new research paper is “Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of Place in the 21st Century.” What is an education desert? Read through the report for some help.
    • Education deserts are places where college opportunities are quite literally few and far between. The authors of the new paper define an education desert as:
      • having zero colleges or universities nearby, or
      • having one community college that is the only public and broad-access institution nearby.
    • The authors classify the local geography as either core-based statistical areas (CBSAs) or commuting zones. CBSAs are further classified as micropolitan (10,000 to 50,000 residents) or metropolitan (more than 50,000 residents) areas.


  • Where are education deserts?
    • Most education deserts are located in the Midwest and Great Plains.
    • The largest single education desert in a commuting zone is the Lexington-Lafayette region of Kentucky, with a population of more than 550,000. The largest CBSA education desert is Columbia, South Carolina, with a population of about 795,000.
      • Interesting: “At first glance it may be surprising that these two communities fit the definition since both have large flagship public universities—the University of Kentucky and the University of South Carolina. However, these two universities admit 72% and 64% of applicants, respectively, making them moderately selective rather than broadly accessible institutions. Undoubtedly, these two institutions serve their local communities; however, prospective students living here have but one public alternative (a single community college) if they are not admitted to their flagships. . . . There are a handful of private colleges and universities located nearby that admit students from the local area . . . but these institutions tend to be small private colleges that may not have the mission, ability, or capacity to serve larger numbers of students.”


  • Who lives in education deserts?
    • The largest numbers of education desert residents are white, but proportionately, the demographics change. In particular, a radically disproportionate number of Native Americans—20% of the total population—live in education deserts.


  • How might understanding the geography of education deserts help inform better educational policy? Read the Inside Higher Ed article for some help.
    • “If higher education is to better serve students and expand educational opportunities, then stakeholders must prioritize the importance of place and understand how it shapes college options.”
      • Policymakers should be aware of what colleges are operating in their states, and how those colleges serve their communities.
      • At least one author suggested policymakers should consider “switching from performance-based models to equity-based models. In areas where opportunity is slim . . . policy makers need to focus on building up the colleges that serve their communities.”



Inside Higher Ed: Geography Matters

Nat Geo: Network of Alliances for Geographic Education

American Council on Education: Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century

3 responses to “Navigating Education Deserts

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