For many students, proximity to a college or university is the greatest determinant of whether they enroll. Yet, in many rural areas, where students have especially strong ties to their communities, there is no public college within 60 miles, and oftentimes neither the broadband access to support online courses. Until geography is included in the conversation around expanding access to higher education, experts say policymakers will continue to close the doors on many students.
Nearly 40 percent of first-time, full-time students choose to attend a college or university near their home, according to a 2016 study of American freshmen. And this holds true even more so for students in rural areas, who have strong social ties to their local community. Mike Abbiatti, the executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), an organization seeking to improve technology in education, and former rural student himself, said that rural students primarily choose between three options in higher education: they get their high school degree and work in their community, oftentimes on their family's farm; they enroll in their local public institution and return to work in their community; or they attend the local college and leave the community.
Yet, in a recent analysis in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Myers reported that 11.2 million adults — 3.5 percent of the American adult population — live in education deserts, or, as he defined it, areas where there is no broad-access institution within 60 miles, with a majority being in western, rural states, such as Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana.
"Colleges and state and federal governments often encourage prospective students to factor financial aid, graduates' earnings, and institutional culture into their decisions. But for students who live in these deserts, proximity and access can be the most important factors," Myers wrote. "... Until the geographic obstacles to attending college are better understood, and more widely discussed, a class of disadvantaged students will remain just that."
Nick Hillman, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and doctoral student Taylor Weichman suggested in a 2016 American Council for Education (ACE) report on education deserts that one solution to this problem is to focus on improving students' experiences in their nearest broad-access institution. They recommended that more selective institutions nearby strengthen their relationships with the local college to "help expand opportunities beyond the associate degree," and serve as "transfer destinations" for students seeking four-year degrees. They also wrote that states could create incentives for those selective institutions to ease the transfer process, and pushed for more extensive research to be conducted on education deserts, suggesting there may be more deserts than they discovered through their analysis.
"Geography shapes enrollment decisions," Hillman said. "We need to think about higher education in new ways."
Not only are there few physical colleges for students in education deserts to attend, but many of those areas also do not have access to high-speed internet, making online courses impossible to run as well.
"We can have all of the most wonderful higher education resources in the world, [but] if you don't have access to the internet to actually get to those, those resources don't actually exist," Abbiatti said.
A January 2018 Urban Institute report was the first to compile data on access to online education as it relates to education deserts. The authors, defining an education desert as living 25 miles from a public, broad-access institution, found that of the 17.6 percent of adults living in education deserts, 1.3 percent — 3.1 million adults — also did not have access to the internet, which they defined as internet speeds below 25 megabits per second for downloads and below 3 Mbps for uploads, the minimum speed as defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The authors of the report suggested that to increase access to online education in these areas the FCC decrease the cost of broadband internet. They also recommended that when the FCC reports on the costs on internet speed it look into both the costs of mobile broadband access as well as fixed broadband access, because while mobile access may be better for young adults, it may not be strong enough to run online courses.
Abbiatti said that rural communities need to establish a connection between internet providers and higher education stakeholders to advocate for broadband access. Currently, he said, as it has been for all 69 years of his life, "the focus is not on students' success, it's on financial success."
He said that despite this, institutions are "trying to reach out in any possible way they can" to form connections with state and local entities to help students access higher education.
"We see it every day, in every rural community. Somewhere in that community there's someone talking about higher education," he said. "Institutions are doing everything in the world they can to help bring students into the higher education realm."
Hillman said that "we certainly have a huge blind spot with geography" when it comes to higher education research and policy efforts because it's not an appealing issue for policymakers to target due to how complex it is. He noted that lawmakers are instead currently focused on creating measures to hold institutions accountable for the success of their students, such as through gainful employment regulations and institutional risk-sharing proposals.
He warned, however, that these efforts can actually have a negative effect on rural institutions. Ignoring the fact that rural institutions are few and far between — and a fixture for the local community — can cause them to be subject to sanctions for producing results that not up to par, despite the fact that they provide a service for traditionally underserved students. Instead, Hillman suggested that policymakers attempt to help these institutions make the most of the resources they have.
However, Hillman said that the growing focus on the role geography plays in people's lives in areas such as public health and economics was promising.
"I hope it becomes more salient for education reasons. [For higher education] there's still a long way to go," Hillman said.
Publication Date: 7/30/2018