Donald Trump’s secretary of education Betsy Devos has made the idea of expanding “school choice” programs a priority across the nation—but a considerable amount of students live in “education deserts,” where there are few, if any, college choices near by.

According to a 2009 study conducted by sociologist Ruth N. López Turley, there are significant differences in college application and enrollment based on geographical college proximity. Fifty-nine percent of students who lived in an area with zero to two colleges applied to postsecondary institutions, while 73 percent of students who lived in an area with fifteen or more surrounding colleges applied to postsecondary institutions. This study also displays a 10-percentage-point difference (67.83 percent and 77.45 percent) in college enrollment between students who live in education deserts and areas with fifteen or more surrounding colleges.

Location is a salient, yet overlooked, reason for students choosing to discontinue their education after high school. Thousands upon thousands of students are denied the opportunity of higher education in the United States simply because of their geographic placement in education deserts. Some may argue that online and out-of-state higher education can serve as a frontline combatant against a lack of educational opportunity due to location, but this is a misassumption—college choice is not independent of location. Indeed, proximity to institutions of higher education gives access to: initial information for applicants, support systems for students, and a more affordable higher education. When this opportunity is not accessible, students cannot succeed at the tertiary level of education. A problem disparately affecting rural communities in the United States, education deserts beg for attention from experts and decisionmakers.

Evidence-based policy research is essential to keeping our democracy strong.

What Is an Education Desert?

Similarly to a food desert, an education desert describes a nearly complete lacking of a given right within a specific location. An education desert, detailed by Nicholas Hillman and Taylor Weichman in their 2016 report, is a neologism explaining a place that has either no colleges or universities nearby or just one community college as the only public-broad access institution nearby. It’s worth noting that the term “education desert” is relatively new; this first operational definition serves as proof of concept for further research into the phenomenon.

The role location plays in terms of access to higher education is astounding. Hillman and Weichman’s research has shown that in the best case, where a town has access to one public institution, low-income students are provided with only one feasible option of higher education. While community colleges enroll over half of all students living in education deserts, the fact that they often do not house students leaves the students with three options: choose to leave their town and cover the expenses of an out-of-state education, commute to and from school, or do not attend school at all.

Over half of 2014 college freshmen attending public four-year universities attended schools within fifty miles of their home. The reasons why these students choose to stay close to home are not monolithic and vary based on the individual, but Hillman and Weichman provide three general reasons why students are less likely to enroll into college when living in an education desert, as outlined below: spillover effects, community responsibilities, and the “geographic opportunity structure.”

Why Don’t Students Succeed in Education Deserts?

Spillover Effects

Students living in education deserts are also more likely to have lesser access to college awareness programs and initiatives, as well as postsecondary emphasis and support from one’s family, teachers, and peers. Living in close proximity to a college, on the other hand, increases a student’s chances of continuing their education after high school by heightening access to information surrounding higher education. Furthermore, attending a college near one’s home can prove to be financially and emotionally beneficial for the individual.

Community Responsibilities

A student’s community ties may also play a role in their college attendance, or lack thereof. The concept of familism, discussed in researchers Sarah Ovink and Demetra Kalogrides’ comparative analysis of Latino and white students and their college pathways, “refers to an enhanced sense of duty to family, surpassing the needs or desires of the individual.” A multitude of students deal with familism in a variety of faces such as having younger siblings, disabled parents, or simply seeing the need for help within their household. Being that many students feel obliged to stay close to home in order to fulfill some familial responsibilities, the only option to continue their education is to do so locally. When these same kind of students live in education deserts, their local options are nearly nonexistent.

Geographic Opportunity Structures

The dissemination of education deserts throughout the United States is far from proportionate. Most education deserts exist within rural, non-metropolitan communities, with the highest influx of them being in the midwestern states. The largest non-metropolitan education desert is Lexington-Lafayette county in Kentucky, with a population of 550,000 people without affordable, readily accessible postsecondary education.

Although most education deserts are constituted by rural areas, it’s worth mentioning that urban education deserts do, in fact, exist. The largest metropolitan education desert is the capital of South Carolina, Columbia—where the population is 795,000 people. In urban areas that are designated as education deserts, even more students of varying racial backgrounds are affected.

Source: American Council on Education.

Progressive legislation and initiatives will be the only way to resolve tertiary education inequality due to location. Collaborative programs between higher education institutions and federal and state governments can tackle the problem head on. Emulating Chicago Public School’s algorithm that pipelines low-income students into charter and magnet schools is one solution that would prove to be beneficial. If an algorithm, and accompanying initiative, was created in order to pinpoint students living in education deserts, the number of individuals affected may decrease. By utilizing census data and giving students living in education deserts a leg up in the college admissions process over their peers who live in areas rich in postsecondary institutions, colleges as well as state and federal governments can provide these disadvantaged students with far more opportunities than they are receiving now. Using a similar system will ensure that colleges are aware of those who are disadvantaged by education deserts, and will subsequently make sure that these students are not overlooked in the college admissions process. This solution may not rid the country of its education desert problem, but it may broaden the access to quality, affordable tertiary education. State officials can also utilize census data when developing new community colleges, which will create higher accessibility for students living in education deserts.

It is evident that an individual’s geographic placement plays a pivotal role in their postsecondary educational options and, subsequently, their socioeconomic mobility. Education deserts are a national issue that play a crucial role in sustaining educational inequality. More research and dialogue surrounding this recently conceptualized phenomenon is urgently needed—with no prevention or intervention, the cycle of locality and discontinuation of higher education will continue across the country.

Cover Illustration: Raaziq Brown.