Education Deserts - American Council on Education

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Education Deserts - American Council on Education

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Viewpo ints Viewpoints: VoicesfromtheField Voices from the Field
Education Deserts
The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century

& Nicholas Hillman
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Taylor Weichman
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century

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ACE and the American Council on Education are registered marks of the American Council on Education and may not be used or reproduced without the express written permission of ACE.
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© 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century
Nicholas Hillman Assistant Professor University of Wisconsin–Madison Taylor Weichman Doctoral Student University of Wisconsin–Madison
Suggested Citation: Hillman, Nicholas, and Taylor Weichman. 2016. Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century. Viewpoints: Voices from the Field. Washington, DC: American Council on Education. Please direct inquiries to Nick Hillman, [email protected]

ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy (CPRS) provides thought leadership at the intersection of public policy and institutional strategy. The center provides senior college leaders and public policymakers with an evidence base to responsibly promote emergent practices in higher education with an emphasis on long-term and systemic solutions for an evolving higher education landscape and changing American demographic. ​
CPRS Viewpoints is a series of occasional, independent papers authored by leading social science researchers designed to explore new and emergent concepts or revisit foundational works in ways that help readers reframe or retool their thinking about higher education policy and practice.

Viewpoints: Voices from the Field

INTRODUCTION
When deciding where to go to college, students ask several important questions: How much will it cost? What academic programs are available? Will it prepare me for my future? What colleges and universities are nearby? While most research and policy conversations understandably focus on helping students answer the first few, this last question about geography and place is too often overlooked. Perhaps it is overlooked because we assume geography is irrelevant in the Internet age. Maybe we assume every community in the United States has a college or university nearby, or that students are highly mobile. Whatever the reason for overlooking the context of place, this paper explains why place still matters. In fact, place matters even more for today’s college students, many of whom work full-time, care for dependents, and have close social ties to their communities. If higher education is to better serve students and expand educational opportunities, then stakeholders must prioritize the importance of place and understand how it shapes college options. Nonetheless, federal policy conversations and researchers often discuss college choice as though place and geography do not matter (Turley 2009). For example, federal policy efforts like the College Scorecard, Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, and College Navigator all seek to get “better information” into the hands of students with the hopes they will make “better choices” about where to enroll. But for prospective students who live in communities with few educational options, their educational destinations are bound by whatever institution is nearby.
The purpose of this brief is to explore the importance of place even further, and to raise
important questions about how geography shapes educational equity and opportunity.
Not all students have the luxury of shopping around, and in many cases (as this issue brief highlights) there are no alternatives from which to choose. From this vantage point, college choice may be less a function of students’ “college knowledge” and more a function of proximity and place. For place-bound students, many

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of whom are “post-traditional” students,1 postsecondary choices are made according to proximity to home and work, making it all the more important to know how geographic opportunity structures vary across the nation. The purpose of this brief is to explore the importance of place even further, and to raise important questions about how geography shapes educational equity and opportunity. The brief finds several “education deserts” located across the country—communities with the most constrained set of postsecondary options.
THE CONTINUED SIGNIFICANCE OF PLACE
Some observers will be quick to dismiss the importance of place by arguing that distance education and the Internet are a viable alternative for place-bound students. While online learning may hold promise in certain educational environments and for some learners, it is no panacea for the structural inequalities built into our current postsecondary system. People living in homes without computers or with limited access to high-speed Internet may not see distance learning as a viable option (Strover 2014; Pick, Sarkar, and Johnson 2015). And when learners participate in distance education, researchers have found negative effects on students of color and those who commute or work while enrolled (Xu and Jaggars 2013; Xu and Jaggars 2014; Joyce, Crockett, Jaeger, Altindag, and O’Connell 2014). Only about one in 10 undergraduates enroll exclusively online, and research has yet to show that distance learning provides quality equal to or greater than place-based learning (Jaggars, Edgecombe, and Stacey 2013; U.S. Department of Education 2013). Therefore, increasing broadband access and building institutional capacity to deliver online content may hold promise for the future, but only if it does not reinforce existing inequalities.
Place still matters; in fact, the majority —57.4 percent—of incoming freshmen attending public four-year colleges enroll within 50 miles from their permanent home.
Place still matters; in fact, the majority—57.4 percent—of incoming freshmen attending public four-year colleges enroll within 50 miles from their permanent home (Eagan, Stolzenberg, Ramirez, Aragon, Suchard, and Hurtado 2014). Figure 1 displays the mean and median distance between their permanent home and their college or university; the most mobile students are those attending private nonprofit colleges and universities.

1 For an in-depth discussion of post-traditional learners, see Soares 2013.

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Figure 1: Distance from Student’s Home to College (in Miles), by Institution

PUBLIC 2-YEAR PUBLIC 4-YEAR PRIVATE NONPROFIT 4-YEAR 258

TOTAL

82

107

31

Mean

8

18

46

13

Median

For several decades, researchers have found that distance and geography shape students’ decisions about where to apply and enroll in college: the further a student lives from a college or university, the less likely he or she is to enroll (Hurwitz, Smith, and Howell 2015; McConnell 1965; McHugh and Morgan 1984; Long and Kennedy 2015). There are three general reasons why this occurs.
Distance elasticity. Similar to the way students respond to increases in price, the likelihood of enroll-
ing in college diminishes as distance rises. In fact, researchers have found that some students are more responsive to distance than to price (Alm and Winters 2009; Cooke and Boyle 2011; Rouse 1995). Students who are more affluent are less affected by distance, while students from working-class families and students of color are most affected by distance (Kohn, Manski, and Mundel 1976; Ovink and Kalogrides 2015).
Spillover effects. Simply having a college or university nearby is associated with high levels of postsec-
ondary enrollment (Kim and Rury 2011; Koos 1944; Turley 2009; Schofer 1975). This could be because people move to places where higher education options are available, but it is more plausible that the location of an institution encourages local residents to attend. Having a college or university nearby reduces transportation costs for prospective students, increases the “collective consciousness” of local options, and may even result in partnerships with local schools and other organizations to create college pathways that would otherwise be unavailable to local residents (Briscoe and De Oliver 2006; Griffith and Rothstein 2009; Do 2004; Franklin 2013).
Community ties. The college choice-making process is a social experience driven by community ties.
Because of family responsibilities, cultural norms, or factors related to working while enrolled in school, many students stay close to home for college (Somers et al. 2006; Perna 2010). Furthermore, Latino, black, and Native American students are more likely to stay closer to home for these reasons (Hurtado, Inkelas, Briggs, and Rhee 1997; McDonough, Antonio, and Trent, 1997; Pérez and McDonough 2008). In addition,

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rural students tend to stay closer to home or limit their choices due to community ties (Ali and Saunders 2009; Byun, Meece, and Irvin 2012).

As Ruth Lopez-Turley, professor of sociology at Rice University (TX) states, we “should stop treating the college-choice process as though it were independent of location and start situating this process within the geographic context in which it occurs.”

As Ruth Lopez-Turley, professor of sociology at Rice University (TX) states, we “should stop treating the college-choice process as though it were independent of location and start situating this process within the geographic context in which it occurs” (Turley 2009, 126). These three themes help explain why students stay close to home, but let us now shift our attention to the geographic context in which choices occur. Next is a discussion on the phenomenon of “education deserts”—communities where students have few postsecondary options from which they can choose.

DEFINING EDUCATION DESERTS
Akin to “food deserts”2—communities where access to nutritious and affordable food is scarce—there exist “education deserts” where college opportunities are quite literally few and far between. As scholars have observed, food deserts do not occur at random but are systematically drawn along lines of race and class where low-income neighborhoods and communities of color tend to have the poorest access to affordable and nutritious food, resulting in poor health conditions. The same pattern is true for housing, health care, and transportation, where structural inequalities cut along geographic dimensions and can negatively impact people’s life chances (Basta and Moroni 2013; Kennedy 2004; Lamichhane et al. 2013; Tate 2008; Walker, Keane, and Burke 2010). Education is no different: geography can be destiny when opportunities are richly available for some and rare or even nonexistent for others (Briggs and Wilson 2005; Kennedy 2004; Smedley, Stith, and Nelson 2003). To locate communities where postsecondary opportunities are most constrained, this paper defines “education deserts” as places with either of the following two conditions:
1. Zero colleges or universities are located nearby, or 2. One community college is the only public broad-access institution nearby. The first definition is the most straightforward and easiest to measure—these represent the most isolated
2 P.L. 110-246, 2008

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places where no local options are available to would-be college goers. The second definition prioritizes “public broad-access” institutions because they are primarily designed to serve their local communities’ needs. Of course, many private colleges and universities also serve their local communities’ needs but they tend to be smaller in size with specific educational goals and missions, and therefore not designed to serve the broadest number of students. Accordingly, the definition used in this brief serves as a proof of concept—a frame of reference to help researchers and policymakers discuss the important role geography plays in shaping postsecondary choices, particularly within the public sector.

Accordingly, the definition of education deserts used in this brief serves as a proof of concept —a frame of reference to help researchers and policymakers discuss the important role geography plays in shaping postsecondary choices, particularly within the public sector.

The analysis defines a “broad-access” institution as any public college or university admitting more than 75 percent of its applicants, which is consistent with what other researchers have used when studying these institutions (Angrist, Autor, Hudson, and Pallais 2014; Doyle 2010; Fryar 2014). Selective institutions often draw from a geographically wider pool of applicants and thus may not have the expressed mission of serving their local community. Given the above definition, we focus on whether a community’s only broad-access public institution is a two-year institution (community college). Having only one community college and no other public broad-access college or university nearby means the student only really has one public option from which to choose. If there are two community colleges, or if there is a community college and a broad-access public university, then this community would not qualify as an education desert under this definition since the student has at least one public alternative. Under this definition, a community could still be classified as an education desert even if private institutions operate nearby. But as shown later in this paper, the private sector (nonprofit and for-profit) accounts for less than 15 percent of total enrollments in education deserts, suggesting these institutions may not have the ability or capacity to serve many more students. For an analysis of both sectors, see Hillman (2015).
Defining a “local” geography. While there are several ways we could measure distance and proximity
(e.g., miles from home to campus) we are focusing on the built environment of the community in which prospective students live. Accordingly, we use two common environmental measures: core-based statistical areas (CBSAs) and commuting zones (CZs). Both measures use counties as the primary unit of analysis, but cluster these counties in different ways.
The CBSA is the more commonly used and familiar definition, where counties are classified into micropolitan or metropolitan statistical areas (Rephann 2007; Hillman and Orians 2013; Kienzl, Alfonso, and Melguizo 2007). Both statistical areas include core population areas and surrounding counties that have

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“a high degree of social and economic integration” with the core county (Office of Management and Budget 2013). Micropolitan areas include core counties that have a population of 10,000 to 50,000, while metropolitan areas have more than 50,000 residents in the core. While these statistical areas provide a helpful classification of “local” areas for prospective students, they exclude all rural areas. To capture such rural areas in this analysis, we include “commuting zones,” which cluster counties according to journey-to-work data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Many commuting zones overlap with CBSAs, but the two measures are distinct from one another. Commuting zones are increasingly popular measures of local areas, as seen in recent studies of upward mobility and labor market inequality (Tolbert and Sizer 1996; Turley 2009; Chetty, Hendren, Kline, and Saez 2014; Autor and Dorn 2013). Regardless of how we measure local areas, we aggregate out data using county-level population, educational attainment, and economic data for the year 2013 made available by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Census Bureau. We merge this data with U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) files for the 2013–14 academic year, which allows us to count the number and characteristics of higher education institutions per county.
WHERE ARE THE EDUCATION DESERTS?
Figures 2, 3, and 4 display the location of education deserts according to commuting zones, micropolitan areas, and metropolitan areas. In Figure 2, education deserts encompass 295 commuting zones spanning across every census region. The most are located in the Midwest and Great Plains states, while the fewest are in Mid-Atlantic and New England states. The average population size of a commuting zone desert is approximately 72,100, yet there are 15 commuting zone deserts with populations over 250,000. For example, the Lexington-Lafayette (Kentucky) region is designated as the largest education desert with a commuting zone population over 550,000.
Figure 2: Commuting Zones (Rural and Non-rural Counties) Designated as Education Deserts

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Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century
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