Despite the indelible image of some fresh-faced 18-year-old heading out of state for college, the truth is nearly 40 percent of students attend a school less than 50 miles from home. For students who work full time or have children — a growing segment of the college population — proximity to a physical campus or at least high-speed Internet access can be critical to pursuing higher education.
Yet researchers at the think tank Urban Institute say 3.1 million Americans live more than 25 miles from an open-access public college and lack a suitable Internet connection needed for online education. People living in rural and Western parts of the country are more likely to face this dual challenge, although nearly every state has pockets of physical, online or complete education deserts, according to the Urban Institute report released Friday.
“Access to degrees starts with actual access, being able to get to a place where you’re able to earn a degree,” Kristin Blagg, a research associate at the Urban Institute and co-author of the report, told The Washington Post.
Blagg and colleague Victoria Rosenboom used data from the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Department of Education and the Census Bureau to identify education deserts and determine who lives in them. The pair define an education desert as a place where there are either no colleges within 25 miles or just a single community college. Based on that definition, an estimated 41 million adults lack access to a physical university, and of those people, 3.1 million also lack access to high-speed Internet.
These dual barriers to higher education disproportionately affect Native Americans. While only 1.3 percent of the U.S. population lives in a complete education desert, nearly 12 percent of Native Americans contend with no physical or online access to college, according to the report.
The findings align with the FCC’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report, which showed that about 63 percent of tribal land residents lack access to high-speed Internet, compared with only 17 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. The disparity is especially stark in rural areas, with about 85 percent of Native residents lacking broadband connections.
“This study demonstrates what many Native Americans, rural Americans, and other Americans living in education deserts already knew: The internet has not untethered all of us from our geographic location,” the report said. “As long as broadband access depends on geography, place still plays an important role in access to higher education.”
Communities with a dearth of higher education options have lower median family incomes and lower educational attainment than those in areas with access to online and physical campuses. The gap in high school completion between both groups is only six percentage points, but the gap in college attendance is 16 percentage points, and the gap in college completion is 18 percentage points, according to the report.
To address the disparities, Rosenboom said private or selective public universities could form partnerships with local community colleges to create a more seamless transfer process in instances where selective schools are the only nearby option for a four-year degree. Another option would be for the federal government to adopt a “dig once” policy, whereby construction workers install conduits for broadband Internet access any time they build or upgrade a road or sidewalk.
“Online education isn’t a perfect substitute for being able to go to a university, but it is an option that should be available,” Rosenboom said.