College & Workforce Readiness

Why College Access Depends on Your ZIP Code

By Catherine Gewertz — June 24, 2016 2 min read
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The education world funnels a lot of energy into identifying barriers to college, and helping traditionally marginalized students climb over them. We’ve streamlined the federal financial-aid process. We’ve come up with ways to nudge students into applying for, and enrolling in, college. But one of the big barriers could also be one of the most overlooked: a student’s ZIP code.

A new paper offers maps that make the point with dramatic clarity. Nicholas W. Hillman, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, analyzed the number and selectivity of colleges and universities located in 709 “commuting zones,” or clusters of counties defined by labor-market researchers studying areas where people live, work and commute.

Even though it’s no surprise that some areas constitute “education deserts,” as Hillman calls them, the deep scarcity of colleges within manageable commuting distance shows how difficult it could be for students of limited means to have a meaningful college choice.

Here’s what Hillman found when he examined the availability of four types of higher education institutions.

Hillman found that zones of opportunity put specific groups at a disadvantage. Latino and African-American communities tend to have the fewest colleges, and less-selective colleges, nearby, while white and Asian communities tend to have more colleges, and more selective institutions, nearby to choose from.

As an example, Hillman points to two commuting zones in west Texas: Big Spring and Uvalde. Each has about 100,000 residents, but Big Spring is predominantly white, and has three community colleges and one public four-year university, while Uvalde, primarily Latino, has only one community college.

Hillman argues that most policy that seeks to improve college access focuses on the process of opportunity—with initiatives that aim to get more information into students’ hands, so they can make good college choices—instead of the geography of opportunity. For students who work full-time, or have family responsibilities that keep them close to home, the scarcity of college options within a manageable distance is destiny, Hillman argues.

“The geographic location of colleges is one of the most basic and obvious dimensions of opportunity, yet policymakers and researchers often overlook how place shapes students’ educational destinations. Ignoring this context simultaneously ignores structural inequalities built into the postsecondary landscape and fails to prioritize one of the most important forces shaping opportunities for working-class students and students of color.”

The paper urges researchers to delve further into how college location shapes students’ opportunities and develop “more nuanced” theories of college choice that reflect the role of geography in students’ decisions. Policymakers can use this evolving theory to address inequities that do not happen by accident, Hillman argues, but “which are created and sustained through policy decisions.”

Hillman’s paper, “Geography of College Opportunity: The Case of Education Deserts,” was published this month in the American Educational Research Journal. In another study earlier this year, Hillman explored the characteristics of education deserts and examined where they’re located.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.