Mapping Access to Higher Education in Rural Areas

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Noah Palazza is a student majoring in Religious Studies at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He’s from Ozark, in southwest Missouri. 

For high school students across America, the process of deciding where to go for college can seem daunting. Determining where they want to go, where to apply, how much it’s going to cost, and what career path they want to choose are important and common considerations. But there’s another consideration students in more rural parts of America ask: “What’s nearby?” According to the American Council on Education, 57.4 percent of incoming freshmen attending public four-year colleges enroll within 50 miles of their permanent home. However, for these students, the issue isn’t simply deciding where to apply rather, they are concerned because in many rural areas, no schools are nearby. These are the students that are rarely spoken of. They’re living in what’s labeled as “Education Deserts”, which is defined as having zero nearby colleges or universities or there is one community college that acts as the only broad-access public institution.

Here are some maps that show where higher education facilities are located across the country.

As shown in the data above, there is a clear difference in educational opportunity between most of the western half of the country and the eastern half. Too often we discount geography as a factor in educational success. But the reality of the situation is geography is setting some kids up for success and other kids up to fail from the get go.

College Drop Out Rates

Our higher education dropout rates are reaching a gross rate. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, just 46 percent of Americans complete college once they start. This brings the age-old adage of your college professor preaching to your class, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. At the end of this course one of them will not be sitting there anymore,” to a whole new factual promise.

Kids are struggling with college as it is, as the statistics demonstrate. The insurmountable number of demands that eighteen to twenty-somethings have to keep up with these days is unnerving. Everything from their K-12 schooling not adequately preparing them, to the rising tuition costs and crushing student loans. In fact, nearly 4 out of every 5 college students are working part-time while studying for their degrees, averaging 19 hours a week of work, according to Seventeen magazine. This creates very challenging environments for students to thrive and often leads to dropouts.

These rising costs and locality constraints force students to settle on schools they may not want to attend which exacerbates the dropout problem.

The map below shows the prevalence of individuals with some college education, but no degree. The data becomes even more clear when you overlay the previous map showing where universities are located along with the percent of the population that has dropped out.

Location can be life changing. Sadly, not always in a good way. As stated earlier, the majority of incoming freshmen attending public four-year colleges enroll within 50 miles of their permanent home. This means that the majority of high school seniors who are planning on attending a university in the fall will end up at a community college or a school that doesn’t suit them if they live in an education desert.

In 2001, Bob Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher,  subtly coined the term “dropout factory” to describe high schools where less than 60 percent of the initial freshman class graduate four years later. A striking thought that took the country by storm creating countless efforts to change the atmosphere surrounding these schools and initiated real progress towards helping those in need. In 2016, we are coining the term “dropout farm” to describe an area in the country that has so little higher education opportunity that it forces kids into attending unsuitable schools that eventually lead to dropouts. This issue is growing and affects millions of youths in an incredibly detrimental way.

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