The Higher Education?Desert
Research shows that the farther someone lives from a public college, the less likely they are to pursue a?degree.
In areas like Charlotte, North Carolina, there are few broad-access public college options outside of community colleges.Getty Images/iStockphoto
Barbourville, a sleepy Kentucky town of about 3,000 people situated in the Appalachian Mountains some three hours southeast of Louisville alongside the Daniel Boone National Forest, is a higher education desert.
The town boasts one four-year private college, Union College, where the majority of students enroll to pursue teaching or nursing careers. But with a 30% graduation rate and an average annual salary after graduation of $32,000, the school does little to push upward the median family income in the town.
The closest community college is about 45 minutes away.
"It's only the town over," says, 22-year-old Mollie Pope, who graduated from Knox Central High School there in 2015. "But when you live in the mountains, the town over is kind of far."
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About 35 million people, or 10% of the U.S. population, live in higher education deserts – areas where there are either zero public colleges and universities or only one so-called broad-access public college, meaning a school that admits at least 80% of all applicants.
That's important because, with the exception of white and wealthy students, who are the most mobile when it comes to enrolling in a college outside their home state, the farther away someone lives from a college, the less likely they are to attend, research shows. That's especially true for students from low-income families, black students and Hispanic students.
Pope bucked those odds.
She grew up in Barbourville, where as a young girl she watched her mother and father take turns enrolling in Union College to earn their bachelor's degrees and start new careers – her mother as a high school English teacher and her father as a National Park Service ranger.
"I grew up seeing them do that and, with my mom being a teacher, I was always thrown into the education system," she says.
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Pope was accepted to an academically rigorous program her junior and senior years of high school. At the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Bowling Green, students are dually enrolled in college level courses at Western Kentucky University. One of the perks of the program is that students who graduate are typically on the receiving end of full scholarships to in-state colleges and universities.
"But that's often looked at as, 'Oh, you're staying here,' and not, 'Oh, wow, you're getting all this money to get a degree,'" she says, adding that graduates have gone on to elite schools like Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's seen almost as a downgrade that you're not leaving and going somewhere else."
That attitude didn't faze Pope, whose brother had attended Western Kentucky to study photojournalism. But she wanted to pursue geology, and the school didn't have a strong program. She briefly considered the University of Kentucky, where she applied and was accepted with a scholarship that covered her tuition but not her room and board. Pope ultimately settled on Union College in Schenectady, New York, where they offered her an entirely full ride.
"I remember calling them on the phone to ask a question about credit transfers," she says. "I had a really thick Southern accent then and I had to repeat myself like six times. I immediately went to my guidance counselor's offices and I was like, 'What have I done.'"
"Move-in day was my first day there," says Pope, who until then had only been in New York for three hours when she accompanied her mother to an Advanced Placement English training program in Willimantic, Connecticut, and they spent an afternoon in Manhattan.
"I genuinely had no idea what I was getting myself into," she says. "I remember thinking, 'If I hate it here, I can always transfer. It's not a big deal.'"
But by the end of the first year she was already working in the admissions office and guiding tours for prospective students.
Pope is slated to earn her bachelor's degree from Union College next month and recently decided to delay enrollment in a Ph.D. program after learning she was selected for a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Cape Town in South Africa next January.
Every year, thousands of students plot their futures from higher education deserts the way Pope did four years ago, though not all of them possess her academic prowess and family support system.
At a time when two out of every three undergraduates enroll in a two-year or four-year degree program within 25 miles of their home, according to the Department of Education data, Nick Hillman, associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it's time policymakers and politicians begin paying attention to geography inequality, one of the most overlooked aspects of college access and opportunity.
As outlined in a new report published by Third Way, Hillman, a leading researcher in the field of higher education deserts, identifies them by calculating how many colleges and universities are located within the Department of Agriculture's 709 commuting zones, which cluster counties together based on commuting patterns and shared economic activity.
In doing so, Hillman has identified 392 higher education deserts across the country, many of which are concentrated in rural areas of low population density where the average population is approximately 26,000. Barbourville is part of Knox County, which boasts a population of about 27,000 people.
"People will say, 'That's so elementary,' Hillman says. "The entire state of Wyoming is a desert, big surprise. There are no colleges in Yellowstone National Park. But we can dig down deeper."
Indeed, higher education deserts aren't isolated to those small rural counties. More than 200 of them exist in places where the average population is nearly 180,000.
Storm Lake, Iowa, for example, an area in the northwest part of the state with a population over 72,000, has two colleges in a 25-mile radius. But both Buena Vista University and Faust Institute of Cosmetology are small private colleges, and the public option, Northwest Iowa Community College, is about 50 miles away.
Even cities, like Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, can be a mirage of higher education opportunity. While dozens of colleges are nearby, the only broad-access public options are community colleges. Similarly, Chicago has 22 two-year public colleges, zero four-year broad access public colleges and a whole host of more elite private schools.
"That's pretty much the entire game in town," Hillman says. "They're dominated by private institutions."
The issue of higher education deserts is personal for Hillman, whose family is from Elkhart, Indiana, a factory community in the northern part of the state where the ebb and surge of the economy dictate whether people are employed.
"That area just lives and dies by the recreational vehicle industry," he says, explaining that even in moments when upward of 25% of the workforce was unemployed, very few went back to school because the closest college was 30 miles away.
"Nobody in my family or in my family circle who were unemployed for significant periods of time went back to college," he says. "You're not going to hop in your crummy car and drive 30 minutes to 45 minutes away. The issue was hiding in plain sight."
But there isn't an obvious fix to the problem, either.
Hillman says building new colleges isn't realistic, especially at a time when higher education enrollment is declining at many schools across the country, and online virtual schools can come with their own host of problems involving quality, especially among the for-profit sector.
A boost in Pell grant funding for students who live in higher education deserts would go a long way, Hillman says, in helping them afford transportation costs. The idea is currently being considered by members of Congress as they begin work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and several Democratic 2020 candidates have also pitched big boosts for the federal student aid award.
"I'm looking at my own backyard here in Madison and it gives me a lot of anxiety," Hillman says. "Technically, Madison is an education desert. We've got a number of private colleges nearby, but the only public broad-access college is the technical college in town."
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