News: College Access & Success

3 Ways Education Deserts Compound College Access Issues for Low-Income Students

Thursday, June 13, 2019  
Posted by: Sancia Celestin, Policy Intern
Share |

It is a common misconception that most college-bound students travel out of state, or even across the country, to attend the institution of their choice. In fact, students are more likely to attend a two- or four-year college within just 25 miles of their home, according to a new report from Dr. Nick Hillman, associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the think tank Third Way. This is especially true for students with low-income status because they often have the responsibility of caring for their families, being parents, working part- or full-time, and commuting from work to school and then home. These circumstances make it harder for students to balance education and family commitments.

The bottom line: The farther someone lives from a college, the less likely they are to attend.

Approximately 35 million people, or 10% of the U.S. population, live in higher education deserts, according to the report. An education desert is defined as “a local area where there are either zero or only one public broad-access colleges nearby.” The term “broad-access” in this case refers to an institution that admits at least 80% of its applicants. These broad-access colleges provide an opportunity for today’s students, who often don’t fit the stereotype of the traditional college student, to access higher education.

Here are three reasons why education deserts are another barrier to college access.

1. Not all students can travel far away to attend school.

 Having a college nearby makes it possible for students to pursue higher education and to strive toward a better future. Who are the students with less mobility when it comes to accessing college? They are often the first in their family to go to college and people of color, specifically black and Latinx students.

To define a “local area,” the report uses the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) commuting zones. The USDA determines these commuting zones – clusters of counties – based on commuting patterns and shared economic activity. The nation has 709 commuting zones, which Dr. Hillman investigates to uncover 392 that he classifies as education deserts.

2. Overtaxed institutions offer fewer resources per student.

Education deserts exist in small and large populations and in both rural and urban areas. When there is just one public broad-access college for multiple commuting zones, schools are forced to spread their aid thin, resulting in fewer resources and a lower-quality education for the students who need it the most. Hillman notes that if fewer resources are available to students, it may lead to high student loan debt, a limited range of academic programs, and limited academic supports (e.g. advising). These limited options continue the cycle of high debt with no degree for students of color and those with low-income status.

3. Distance education isn’t a full substitute for access to a college campus.

Distance education is not the answer in replacing the lack of colleges across the nation, Hillman says. Hillman pointed to research from the Journal of Human Resources that says only 1 in 10 undergraduates enrolls exclusively online in distance education courses, and there isn’t enough evidence that distance education is better for students than traditional learning environments. Additional research cited by Hillman indicates “online programs serve students of color and those who commute from work far more poorly than other students.”

Distance education has not been proven to work for students who are unfamiliar with higher education. But it has been shown that distance education can enhance a more traditional college learning experience, rather than replacing it, according to the report.

Recommendations for addressing education deserts moving forward.

Here are Hillman and Third Way’s suggestions for ways policymakers can help colleges build capacity where needed for student progress and success:

  • Help defray students' travel expenses.
  • Cover child care costs.
  • Provide financial support to make up for time students must take off work to attend class or other education-related activities.

More supplemental aid can encourage students to invest in college, even if it’s geographically inconvenient.

Education deserts perpetuate the cycle of educational inequalities in underserved populations. NCAN recommends many of the same supports, emphasizing that need-based aid should cover more than tuition.

(Images courtesy of Third Way)