You've most likely heard of food deserts, a term describing the systematic structural inequality of access to healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods across low-income and communities of color. These inequalities also stem across access to housing, healthcare and transportation.  A report from the American Council on Education's Center for Policy and Research Strategy has proposed a new term to describe a similar situation involving educational equity and opportunity. Education deserts convey how similar lines have been drawn for educational access based on geography. The report emphasises that place matters greatly when considering going to college, especially for nontraditional students.

Place Matters

It turns out that geography plays a major role in where and if a student goes to college. A student's educational destination is more or less predetermined based on where they live. According to the research, students of color and students from working-class families tend to have stronger community ties, and are less likely to have the means to access postsecondary education outside of their communities. These "place-bound' students must weigh their immediate options for college, and for those in education deserts, oftentimes have very limited options. For the 1.29 to 2.86 million students who attend college in education deserts, (mostly located in the Midwest and Great Plains states), their choice of college was less of a function of cost or of knowledge, but of proximity.

The Breakdown

Community colleges play a major role in serving these demographics, enrolling over half of all students who live in education deserts. The problem is, community colleges are few and far between based on the need, flagship universities are selective, and private school only have the capacity to serve a fraction (15%) of the education desert population. Nontraditional students who work part-time or full-time, have family members to care for, or who have families of their own are even more isolated from the few options available in education deserts. Students of color are at an even higher educational disadvantage, as 20% of the entire population of Native Americans and 1 in 10 black and and 1 in 10 Hispanic adults live in education-sparse areas. This is more than unfortunate, it's the outcome of a systematic failure of policies to ensure the accessibility of education to all communities; despite race or place.


"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. We need to also consider the supply and capacity of colleges and universities-where they are located, whether they are serving their local communities, and the roles geography and place have in shaping students' choices."
-Hillman, Nicholas, and Taylor Weichman. 2016. Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of "Place" in the Twenty-First Century.

Distance Education

The report mentions that distance education is one solution to help combat education deserts. Unfortunately, for students in rural areas, internet and computer access is an issue. Increasing broadband access to these areas can help. Online programs that offer supportive services and coaching also offer an additional network for nontraditional students to get connected to outside resources.

Cross-Sector Capacity 

It's unlikely that any new sweeping legislation or key policy measures to address this issue will happen anytime soon, which is why piecemeal efforts with a keen focus on geography, place, and the needs of individual communities will be vital to addressing this issue in develop creative solutions to get these communities access to education.

As a pioneer of distance education, Penn Foster also works to develop cross-sector partnerships to address local educational and workforce needs across the country. By pairing up with nonprofits, youth organizations, colleges, career schools, Workforce Boards, and employers across the nation, Penn Foster supports its partners to implement innovative solutions to serve students through pathways programs, articulation agreements across institutions, upskilling programs, and community-based programs that offer opportunities to students who otherwise wouldn't have had any other chance.

It's up to us to create a network of alternative options for students who lack access to traditional education options. The future of those Americans living in education deserts depends on it.

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