For Students Who Live in Education Deserts, Is College Choice Just a Mirage?

February 8, 2016

By Sara Melnick, Deputy Director

The answer is a resounding “yes”, according to a recent paper issued by the American Council on Education. Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century defines education desert as a location where there are either no postsecondary institutions located nearby or there is only one two-year public broad-access institution located nearby. This paper makes several interesting points:

  • the majority of freshmen in 4-year postsecondary institutions enroll within 50 miles of their home -- the further you live from a postsecondary institution, the less likely you are to enroll;
  • the population of “post-traditional” students – those who are pre-disposed to enrolling in a postsecondary institution close to home due to work and family obligations – is growing rapidly; and
  • for students who live in education deserts, providing information and financial aid to help make better choices about college are moot points if there are few affordable choices in their local community.

Where are these education deserts located? Primarily in the Great Plains and Midwest, in rural and moderately-sized communities. But even some more densely populated areas with flagship colleges can be education deserts because of the dearth of four-year public broad-access institutions. If an education desert does have a postsecondary institution, it’s likely to be a two-year public.

The authors of this report suggest that policy makers and researchers recognize the role that geography plays in college choice. They recommend that states know where these education deserts are and ensure the postsecondary institution(s) in those deserts have adequate capacity to serve students well. This can be done by re-examining existing funding policies for these postsecondary institutions, encouraging postsecondary institutions to partner and expand their capacity to serve students in education deserts, and supporting additional research on the role of geography to dive deeper within these deserts.

How can those of us who work with students living in education deserts ensure that college choice is not a mirage? Intrusive advising of students throughout the postsecondary experience, working with community colleges to facilitate transfer to four-year institutions when possible, and promoting policies that can bring options to these geographies are all potential solutions.

Do you work in an education desert? Are there solutions working in your community? We encourage NCAN members to share and discuss these solutions in our Virtual Learning Communities.

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