Urban Wire Exploring the geography of college opportunity
Kristin Blagg, Victoria Rosenboom
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Media Name: 20180405education.jpg

Access to higher education is the first step toward earning a degree. While some students move to enroll in college, the farther prospective students live from a college or university, the less likely they are to enroll. Students with work or family obligations in their community may be even less likely to move to attend college. In a recent report, we found that 3 million American adults live in “education deserts,” areas that lack access to higher education via either nearby physical campuses or a high-speed internet connection.

In that report, we relied on a previous definition of a physical education desert as an area that has no broad-access (75 percent or higher acceptance rate) public colleges or universities within 25 miles or where a single community college is the only broad-access public institution.

But how you define an “education desert” can depend on the type of higher education an individual or a community might need or value. In this follow-up post, we look at how changing the definition of a physical education desert changes the boundaries of our education deserts.

Read more about our methodology (updated May 2018) and see sample maps here.

Access to two- and four-year schools

Workers holding any college degree tend to earn more than those with only a high school diploma, but the economic returns from a bachelor’s degree tend to be higher, on average, than those from an associate’s degree. Still, a two-year college can be a bridge to a four-year college or can provide job training and credentials that might be critical in the local job market.

Considering the needs of different communities and different students, we look at four alternate definitions of a physical education desert:

  1. No nearby access to either a two-year or a four-year, broad-access public institution
  2. No nearby access to a two-year, broad-access public institution
  3. No nearby access to a four-year, broad-access public institution
  4. No nearby access to both a four-year and a two-year, broad-access public institution

Comparing these definitions with our original definition, we find that when we restrict the desert definition to places with any broad-access institution nearby (alternate definition 1) or those with any public two-year institution nearby (2), the proportion of adults in a physical education desert decreases, as does the proportion of adults in a complete desert (no physical campus or broadband). We see a larger change in our estimate when we expand the desert definition to include places that do not have a four-year institution (3) or do not have both a four-year and two-year, broad-access public institution (4).

Access by distance

In our initial definition, we looked at schools within a 25-mile radius of a given neighborhood (defined as a distance from a block group centroid). Previous studies have found strong correlations between straight-line distance and driving distances. For most parts of the country, a 25-mile straight-line distance is equivalent to a 35-mile driving distance.

We know, however, that in rural areas, drives longer than 35 miles might be common. When we expand the distance to a 50-mile straight-line distance (about 70 driving miles), about 98 percent of the US adult population can access at least one two-year public institution, and 70 percent can access at least one four-year, broad-access public institution.

This increased distance to school might bring additional challenges. Students traveling this far might experience higher transportation costs and could sacrifice work and family time. In addition, students with long commutes may feel less connected to the school because the distance could make activities like attending professor office hours or participating in clubs more difficult.

Access by race and ethnicity

Altering our definition of a physical education desert changes the number of adults characterized as being in a physical, online, or complete education desert. Nonetheless, changes in these definitions do not substantially change disparities in higher education access by race or ethnicity.

In our previous work, we found that roughly 12 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native adults live in a complete education desert, without sufficient proximity to physical higher education campuses or access to online education. In contrast, just about 1 percent of white adults live in a complete education desert. Changing the definition of a physical desert does not substantially change this disparity.


For adults with work or family commitments that make them less likely to move, proximity to higher education could have a substantial effect on access to educational and career opportunities. Regardless of how we define the lack of nearby higher education institutions—whether by the type of institution or by the distance from an institution—there are small communities of Americans that are still cut off from tertiary education. In particular, we find that Native American adults have the least access to higher education near where they live.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Higher education Workforce development
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center Center on Education Data and Policy