Education, News

Exploring “education deserts” — How proximity to universities impacts Americans

If you have the time, check out an absolutely fascinating, interactive report on “education deserts” this week from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The report delves into areas of the country where potential students find themselves at least an hour’s drive from the nearest institution of higher education, drawing connections to poverty and inequality.

The analysis found that more than 11.2 million Americans, or about 3.5 percent of the adult population, live at least an hour’s drive away from a public university. Their maps highlight portions of eastern and western North Carolina for their gaps too.

While such studies are relatively new, they may highlight some of the persistent obstacles to economic advancement in poorer parts of the country.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

For most college students, place matters. And closer is often better. In 2016, almost 40 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen reported that their colleges were less than 50 miles from their homes, a proportion that has held since the 1980s. Studying close to home, family, and community can be even more vital for the roughly one in four undergraduate students who are considered nontraditional — those who are older, have child-care duties, work full time, or attend college part time.

But what happens when there’s no college nearby? That’s still the case in substantial pockets of the country. Areas where it’s difficult for placebound students to get to a college — commonly known as education deserts — have drawn more attention in recent years, but there’s still much to be learned about their breadth and their impact.

We wanted to learn more. If colleges and policy makers fail to consider the impact of education deserts, they will fail to engage a large pool of potential students. That may reinforce the inequality that higher education hopes to solve.

The first step in eliminating education deserts is finding them. Existing research into education deserts is so limited that there isn’t a broadly accepted definition of what constitutes one. So The Chronicle ran its own analysis. We started by identifying almost 1,500 two- and four-year public colleges. (For our analysis, we excluded institutions with an acceptance rate lower than 30 percent: These colleges wouldn’t be considered viable options by many local students.)

Like the authors of several recent studies, we then defined the areas each college serves. To do so, we calculated driving distance: If students who live or work off campus could drive to it within 60 minutes, we considered them in range.

We then looked to census block groups, geographical units for which the U.S. Census publishes useful demographic data. Block groups beyond any college’s driving radius were considered education deserts.

So how many adult Americans live in education deserts? The Chronicle’s analysis found that 11.2-million adults, or 3.5 percent of the adult population, live more than a 60-minute drive from a public college.

Areas of the country that qualify as education deserts under our definition are largely rural and predominantly in the West. Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana, in that order, have the greatest percentage of adults living more than 60 minutes from a college.

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