A new study from Third Way reveals that sizable sections of the country function as ‘education deserts,’ areas where prospective students live beyond commuting distance of at least one open-access public college or university.
According to the data, the greater the distance between citizens and colleges, the less likely that citizens are to attend college. This is an important note for students of color and students from low-income communities.
From Third Way:
But for students from lower-income families and students of color, college choices are highly localized decisions. This would not be a problem if all colleges had equal resources and outcomes, where students received the same quality education no matter where they enrolled. Because of significant inequalities in institutional resources and wide variation in quality, local broad-access colleges may deliver fewer opportunities to students who are already underrepresented in higher education. Constrained options also creates a tracking system where underrepresented students have limited academic offerings, which in turn are likely to galvanize further educational inequality.
The data also reveals that roughly nine percent of all historically black colleges are situated within education deserts.
HBCUs in Education Deserts
Alcorn State University
Bluefield State College
Delaware State University
Elizabeth City State University
Fort Valley State University
Grambling State University
Jarvis Christian College
Mississippi Valley State University
University of Maryland Eastern Shore
The majority of these schools are the only college option within federally-designated commuting areas, and six of the institutions are below 4,000 students enrolled. So why aren’t they thriving as the only institutions in their direct areas? The report provides this answer.
Policymakers may point to online and distance education courses to address the problems outlined in this report. But only one in ten undergraduates enrolls exclusively online, and the colleges currently dominating the online marketplace (mostly for-profit colleges) consistently have poor educational and labor market outcomes. To date, there is limited evidence that distance education delivers better (or even equal) results than traditional learning environments—in fact, online programs serve students of color and those who commute from work far more poorly than other students. Distance education works best for students who are already familiar with college, like those in Georgia Tech’s online computer science master’s degree program. Accordingly, online education should not be seen as the primary solution to addressing geographic inequality in higher education, especially if poor quality programs do more to exacerbate the problem rather than solve it.
The report echoes the growing conversation about the role of HBCUs in educating working adults and adults shifting careers. In both rural and metropolitan areas, a tenth of our sector represents the only college option for thousands of people.
If these schools can extend training and education through satellite sites, online degree programs, competency-based learning and credentialing, there are no limits to how these institutions can grow their brands and their enrollments in short order.