Report: Geography An Overlooked Factor In PIRS Discussion

By Charlotte Pollack, NASFAA Research Analyst

The impact of geography on students’ institutional options and choices is an overlooked factor in recent policy discussions on consumer information and President Barack Obama’s proposed ratings system, according to a new report, “Differential Impacts of College Ratings: The Case of Education Deserts” by education researcher Dr. Nicholas Hillman.  

His research indicates using a ratings system to penalize colleges located in “education deserts” may have unintended consequences that could burden communities of color, working class communities, and those that already have low educational attainment levels. Hillman states federal officials should consider geographic factors such as whether the college is the only public option within a commuting distance when designing a ratings system.

Hillman, assistant professor for educational leadership and policy analysis at University of Wisconsin-Madison and associate editor of the Journal of Student Financial Aid, discussed his research at last week’s UCLA Civil Rights Project education briefing, "Do Higher Ed Accountability Proposals Narrow Opportunity For Minority Students and Minority-Serving Institutions? What New Research Tells Us." A recording of the entire program, including Hillman’s presentation, can be viewed via C-Span.

In this study Hillman examines geography of opportunity and education deserts, which he defines as communities with a limited number of public institutions (defined as less than two) for place-bound students to pursue postsecondary education. Hillman defines place-bound students as those who are not mobile and choose a college based on what is nearby and convenient, often because they may be tied to their community for familial or cultural reasons. According to the study, approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population lives in such a community. Defining these places as education deserts echoes the concept of “food deserts,” defined by the USDA as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.

The research builds a case for considering geography of opportunity with designing a Postsecondary Institutional Ratings System (PIRS). Geography of opportunity is based on the three primary themes: 

  • Distance elasticity: The further away a student lives from a college the less likely it is they will enroll and vice versa; 
  • Spillover effects: The close proximity of a college increases the chance of enrollment and degree attainment; and 
  • Community ties: Students who feel strong ties to their communities are more likely to stay nearby for college. 

Central to each of these themes is the importance of distance from home for students when choosing postsecondary destinations. By using data from various sources, including the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Hillman groups together areas where prospective college students live, work, and commute in to “commuting zones,” defined as “clustered counties sharing similar labor markets and economic activity,” and looks at the number of colleges located in each zone. By examining identified education deserts within these zones the study finds:

  • Communities with rising shares of Hispanic residents are most likely to be classified as education deserts. 
  • Communities that have low educational attainment levels are more likely to have community colleges rather than four-year colleges.
  • After accounting for a community’s economic and social resources, those with larger White populations still have the most educational alternatives.

Hillman stated during the briefing, “The current discussion around college ratings is so focused on consumer information and consumer choices. [It] is dominated by people who maybe don’t have a lot of experience living in these communities or having institutions represented in their framework. What we have to think about is geography.” 

Earlier in 2014, in comments submitted to ED on the proposed PIRS, NASFAA highlighted the importance of including input-adjusted metrics characteristics when creating the PIRS and also recommended looking at urban or rural and regional location when comparing schools. 

To learn more about NASFAA’s suggestion that controls related to characteristics of students entering higher education including location and local service area would impact outcomes measures, check out NASFAA’s Peers In PIRS: Challenges & Considerations For Rating Groups Of Postsecondary Institutions policy brief.  


Publication Date: 9/12/2014

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