- Regions in the U.S. with no or few public colleges tend to have a higher number of for-profit institutions, according to a new report from the Jain Family Institute (JFI).
- Researchers mapped the locations of institutions to determine the size of the nation's education deserts. They found 10.1 million people don't have a public college within a 45-minute driving distance, and 30.7 million people only have one public option.
- People who live in poorer zip codes often have fewer choices for college, indicating "systemic inequality in higher education supply across all school types," the researchers wrote.
The researchers' work illustrates how prevalent educational deserts are in the U.S. While the map shows that people in large metropolitan regions often have many college options, those in large swaths of the country either have no or only one public institution nearby.
New England and the Mideast are the best-off, while the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains regions have the fewest options for students.
This poses several barriers to learners. For one, institutions that don't have nearby competitors can unilaterally set prices and determine access, the researchers write.
A lack of colleges in driving-distance can also severely limit students' options. More than half of first-time freshmen attending a public four-year institution chose one within 50 miles of their homes.
For-profits have swooped into areas lacking public colleges, the researchers found.
"This has created a market opening for institutions that are able to charge high prices for a product that isn't particularly high quality," Marshall Steinbaum, a JFI senior fellow, told Education Dive in an interview.
For example, students in the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas regions have more for-profit than public college options nearby. Such trends can be troubling, as data shows students who attend for-profits often take out more debt and, depending on the credential earned, can fare worse in the job market than those who attend public colleges.
Even with the rise of online learning, students still need high-quality college options nearby, the researchers told Education Dive.
"Online programs are one way to think about restructuring higher ed, but currently it's not a strong enough market to fill gaps for these people in these educational deserts and highly concentrated areas," said Laura Beamer, JFI's higher education finance project lead.
The results of the study have big implications for policy, including free college proposals, Steinbaum said.
"Existing higher education systems, especially public systems, remain inaccessible to large segments of the population," he said. "Simply giving more money to those systems without reforming them and ensuring that they are accessible to a broader constituency … needs to be part of any free college proposal.
To that end, college access experts have recommended that free college proposals cover costs beyond tuition, such as transportation and living expenses, as well as allow adults and part-time students to participate.
Some policymakers have taken note. The governor of Virginia, for instance, recently proposed a free college plan that would give additional funding to Pell Grant-eligible students and provide financial support for textbooks.