College & Workforce Readiness Report Roundup

Geography Plays Role in College Access

By Catherine Gewertz — February 09, 2016 1 min read

The college frenzy obsesses on key hurdles students must clear to snag a spot in a good college: taking tough courses and getting good grades, building an impressive list of extracurriculars, gathering the financial resources to pay the bills. But the simple fact of a student’s street address can be as big a hurdle as any.

A paper released last week explores the dynamics in “education deserts"—areas with fewer colleges and universities—and argues that where students live is a powerful force that can undermine their access to college. Living in an education desert—a place with no four-year colleges or universities nearby and perhaps only one community college—can mean that “geography is destiny” when it comes to college choice, the paper says.

The paper was written by Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Taylor Weichman, a doctoral student there. It’s the first in a series about higher education issues from the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy.

The authors cite research showing that 57 percent of freshmen in four-year colleges and universities enroll in institutions within 50 miles of their homes, and that the farther students live from a given institution, the less likely they are to enroll.

The study finds the most education deserts in the Great Plains and the Midwest. The two biggest are Kentucky’s Lexington-Lafayette region and South Carolina’s Columbia area.

Education deserts aren’t always defined solely by the physical lack of colleges nearby, the authors add. Those two regions each have a flagship university, but since they are relatively selective, students who aren’t admitted have only one other public option nearby: community college.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2016 edition of Education Week as Geography Plays Role in College Access

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