GEOGRAPHY IS A BARRIER TO HIGHER EDUCATION FOR TENS OF MILLIONS OF RURAL AMERICANS. A FEW STATES HAVE HIT ON AN INNOVATIVE SOLUTION.
After graduating from her rural Pennsylvania high school in 2005, Tesla Rae Moore did what many, perhaps most American high school seniors today expect to do: she left home for college with her sights set on a four-year degree. But when she was a sophomore in nursing school at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, the unexpected intervened: she became pregnant with her son.
"It was a high-risk pregnancy, and I decided to stop the program," she said. Moore returned to her hometown of Kane, a community of about 3,500 nestled at the edge of the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. At first just intending to take a break, she ended up dropping out. "I was going to go back, and then it was just one of those things," she said. "Life happened."
Moore didn't lose her desire to return to school; she just couldn't figure out how to make it work as the years went by and her family grew. "I'm a single mom, and the only income earner, so I couldn't quit my job to go to school," she said. "And if I took classes all day, I'd have to work at night, and who would take care of the kids?" Given her work and family obligations, Moore couldn't fit in college unless she could attend classes nearby. But getting to Pitt-Bradford, the nearest four-year school, required a round-trip commute of an hour and a half. The nearest community college, in Butler County, was a two-hour drive each way. Moore didn't have that kind of time to spare. Online-only classes might have been a solution, but Moore felt she needed more structure to succeed. "Especially for somebody that's been out of school, it takes a lot of discipline," she said.
A surprising number of Americans face the same problem Moore did. According to the Urban Institute, nearly one in five American adults--as many as forty-one million people--lives twenty-five miles or more from the nearest college or university, or in areas where a single community college is the only source of broad-access public higher education within that distance. Three million of the Americans in these so-called "higher education deserts" lack broadband internet, as well.
In the past, a dearth of colleges in a particular area might not have mattered as much. But as the full-time, four-year, residential experience of college becomes increasingly expensive and less attainable, and as more students must juggle work and family responsibilities, proximity to school could be the deciding factor in whether a student pursues a degree or, as in Moore's case, finishes one. Meanwhile, online-only programs are still an imperfect substitute for in-person education. According to the Department of Education, as many as 70 percent of undergraduates in 2012 were "nontraditional" students in some way--such as by having delayed enrollment, having a job and/or children, or attending part time.
The impact goes beyond would-be students themselves. Communities that lack local universities and colleges also often lag in economic development, as they miss out on the spin-off start-up businesses and cultural amenities that institutions of higher education often create and that are increasingly necessary to attracting upscale residents and businesses. Growing up in an education desert thus not only makes it harder to attend college, but also means there are fewer opportunities for upward mobility in your hometown even if you do graduate.
Better access to higher education in rural America would help heal these inequities. It could improve rates...