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College Choice Undermined by Living in an 'Education Desert,' Study Says

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The college frenzy obsesses on key hurdles students must clear to snag a spot in a good college: taking tough courses and getting good grades. Assembling an impressive list of extra-curriculars. Writing a smart essay. Assembling the financial resources to pay the bills. But the simple fact of a student's street address can be as big a hurdle as any.

A paper released on Wednesday explores the dynamics in "education deserts"—areas with fewer colleges and universities, and argues that where students live is a powerful force that can undermine their access to college. Living in an "education desert"—a place with no four-year colleges or universities nearby, and perhaps only one community college—can mean that "geography is destiny" when it comes to college choice, the paper says.

The paper was written by Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Taylor Weichman, a doctoral student there. It's the first in a series about higher education issues from the American Council on Education's Center for Policy Research and Strategy.

The authors cite research showing that 57 percent of freshmen in four-year colleges and universities enroll in institutions within 50 miles of their homes, and that the farther students live from a given institution, the less likely they are to enroll.

Maybe because adults "assume geography is irrelevant in the Internet age," or imagine that "every community in the United States has a college or university nearby," the question of distance is too often overlooked or downplayed as adults counsel students on college planning, the authors write. But it's an influential factor in their choices.

Simply "getting better information" into students' hands, which has gotten a high profile as a college-access strategy, isn't enough to cement a connection to a collegiate future, Hillman and Weichman write.

"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," the paper says.

Hillman and Weichman find the most education deserts in the Great Plains and the Midwest. The two biggest are Kentucky's Lexington-Lafayette region and South Carolina's Columbia area. Those two examples illustrate an interesting point in their paper: Education deserts aren't always defined solely by the physical lack of colleges nearby. These two regions each have a flagship university, but since they are relatively selective, students who aren't admitted have only one other public option nearby: community college.

The authors argue that it's wrong to premise college conversations on the idea that just getting enough money and information into students' hands will solve their college-access problems.

"If a prospective student lives in an education desert where there are few options nearby, then his or her educational destinations are less a function of 'college knowledge,' or even financial need, and more a function of proximity and place," Hillman and Weichman write. "If we truly want to improve postsecondary attainment levels, then we should not simply try to nudge students to make 'better choices' about where to attend." 

Policymaking about college access must change to recognize the role geography plays in students' college choices, the paper says. The authors suggest that Title III of the Higher Education Act be expanded to help colleges and universities in remote areas build capacity. 

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