A report and interactive map from think tank Third Way show that about 10 percent of the U.S. population lives in a “higher education desert,” defined as a local area with no more than one public college nearby that admits at least 80 percent of applicants. Such institutions are known as “broad-access” colleges. Distance is a known obstacle to college enrollment, especially for non-white and low-income students. According to the Department of Education, two out of every three undergraduate students enrolled in two- or four-year degree programs attend institutions within 25 miles of their home.
Some expected deserts—and some surprises
Noting that “geographic inequality…is often overlooked in conversations around college access and opportunity,” Nick Hillman, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the report, explored the presence of broad-access colleges in each of the nation’s 709 “commuting zones,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He found that 392 of those zones qualified as higher education deserts—meaning that about 35 million people do not live within 25 miles of a public broad-access college.
“People will say, ‘That’s so elementary,’ Hillman told U.S. News & World Report. “The entire state of Wyoming is a desert, big surprise. There are no colleges in Yellowstone National Park. But we can dig down deeper.” For example, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a large city with several colleges nearby, but none are four-year broad-access institutions. They may all be private colleges instead.
One answer: Address barriers to studying farther from home.
Considering ways to address these geographical constraints, Hillman notes that the answer is not to start building new broad-access colleges and universities—enrollment is declining across the country. Instead, the report recommends providing more financial aid to students living in higher education deserts. “By helping students defray travel expenses, cover child care costs, or make up for time taken off work, supplemental aid may encourage students to invest in college even if it is geographically inconvenient,” Hillman writes.