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The Education Deserts of America

By Pat Brothwell - March 9, 2020

Our last post discussed how it's the job of those helping the students and job seekers of tomorrow explore careers realize that geography shouldn't limit what careers they pursue. If a student doesn't want to leave where they're from to find work, we should be helping them find local opportunities that align with their passions and priorities. 

There are, however, some caveats to that:

  • Some job opportunities simply aren't available in certain locales. For example, you can't find employment as a deep-sea fisherman in a landlocked state. 
  • There's also the phenomenon known as the education desert, which geographically encompasses more than half the US. 

Education deserts are areas in the US that have limited proximity to institutes of higher education. Their specific definition varies depending on what source you consult:

  • The Chronicle of Higher Education says an education desert occurs anywhere that potential students have more than a 60-minute drive to the closest public post-secondary institute. They claim 11.2 million Americans, or 3% of the adult population lives in one. 
  • This article by US News & World Report says the number of Americans living in an education desert is closer to 30 million, or 10% of the adult population. They define the term a little more loosely, as, "areas where there are either zero public colleges and universities or only one so-called broad-access public college, meaning a school that admits at least 80% of all applicants."
  • The Urban Institute says it's those who, "live more than 25 miles from a broad access public university and don't have the high speed internet access necessary for online education." 

You get the gist. Broadly, an education desert exists where residents don't have easy access to non-competitive post-secondary institutes, keeping in mind this means you could still live in an education desert if you're from a small, rural town that only houses a super-selective liberal arts college you have no chance of getting into. Remember, we've previously discussed how over half of US college students get their start at community colleges where admissions processes and relative total cost pose far less of a barrier to entry than most 4-year colleges. These affordable options are key to keeping America educated.

It's important to discuss this, because the majority of first time, full-time college goers attend an institute less than 20 miles from where they live. Research shows that the farther away one lives from a post-secondary institute, the less likely they are to go, especially if cost is a factor. It's important to start having conversations with this population early on, so that they understand the realistic barriers they'll face if post-secondary education is something they plan on pursuing. 

With the internet's ubiquity, it could be surprising to you that online colleges haven't stepped in to become a solution, but you have to step back and realize said ubiquity is relative. You're reading this blog on the internet. We've posted this blog to our website. It's easy for many of us with 24/7 online access to take internet access as a given. However, the reality is that only 75% of people in urban areas have internet access at home, which falls to 63% when it comes to rural locales. Many of those same people don't have a Starbucks or a library with wi-fi close by either.

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It should come as no surprise that those already living in poverty are adversely effected by residing in an education desert, as are some minority groups; 29.5 percent of all Native Americans live more than 60 minutes’ drive from a college. 

An unfortunate reality is that in all the research we've conducted on this topic, there doesn't seem to be a sustainable solution, and even more unfortunately, all the solutions suggested are the kind that come tied up in a whole mess of bureaucratic red tape. 

Still, there's always power in knowledge. There's power in acknowledgement. If you or your students or job seekers are living in one of these metaphorical deserts, have a conversation about it. Talk about the challenges and barriers it puts upon residents of these communities. Help them network with others who are in similar boats who've found affordable ways to pursue post-secondary opportunities. Keep your other options open too. Have them consider apprenticeships, trade schools, and certifications. Use the time they're with you, in a school, library, workforce agency, etc., somewhere with broadband access to start exploring careers and options. Discuss with them how their options will expand if they have internet access at home. Do your due diligence to help them understand what's at stake. 

In our next blog, we'll explore a trend that may eradicate the geographical component from some careers: the rise of remote work. 

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