Many Americans Live in ‘Education Deserts,’ New Research Shows
Prospective college students in rural areas often live miles away from programs offered in a given career field
Call them education deserts.
In vast parts of the country, Americans in need of skills training often live many miles away from a community college. And for those who do live close to one, course options are often limited, covering a narrow range of fields. Many of those fields lack reliable data on expected earnings after graduation, preventing prospective students from making an informed choice of what and where to study.
That’s the conclusion of new research from the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. The report shows the lack of choices—geographically, at least—for students across higher education but raises the biggest concerns about Americans who generally can’t get into four-year schools. Namely: Recent high-school grads who never took the SAT or ACT and older workers who can’t move around because they have children or can’t leave their jobs.
Researchers Kristin Blagg and Matthew Chingos use “education desert” to describe the predicament of a prospective student who lives at least 25 miles away from an associate’s degree program in her desired field. They use “choice desert” to describe the situation of a student who lives within 25 miles of one or more programs, but only one of them—or perhaps none—have earnings data. The ideal situation—”true informed choice”—is when students live within 25 miles of at least two programs in a given field with earnings data, allowing them to compare and choose the best option.
The authors looked at Virginia, which collects earnings data for majors at public and nonprofit colleges. They examined programs in a range of majors and calculated their average proximity to students who graduated from high school in 2011 or 2012.
The biggest group is those who never took the SAT or ACT and thus couldn’t get into most four-year colleges. Across all majors examined in the study, an average of 35% of such students lived in an education desert. Sixty-one percent lived in a choice desert. Only 4% had “true informed choice,” living within 25 miles of at least two competing programs in a given field for which state earnings data was available.
Mr. Chingos says the research shows the shortcomings of recent federal and state efforts to help prospective college students. Those efforts focus on empowering students as consumers, providing cost and earnings data to help them make smarter choices about where to go to school.