Urban Institute Study Finds Millions of Americans Live in Higher Education Deserts

Urban Institute Study Finds Millions of Americans Live in Higher Education Deserts

Millions of American adults cannot access any type of higher education based on their location, according to a new study from the Urban Institute. Released last month, the report found that 3.1 million Americans, at least 1.3 percent of the adult population, live in a complete education desert: They have no public university available within 25 miles nor do they have broadband service to access online classes.

Although many studies have been conducted on physical access to higher education (16.3 percent of Americans do not live near postsecondary institutions), this study was the first to look into broadband’s impact on connectivity in higher education. “Complete education deserts,” according to the study, have insufficient access to the internet, defined as less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and three Mbps for uploads (the national average is 64 Mbps for downloads and 23 Mbps for uploads). Students in complete education deserts live more than 25 miles from a college that admits at least 75 percent of applicants.

These may be conservative estimates, the institute found. The researchers used the maximum advertised speeds from DSL providers to determine how many Americans lack internet access, even though actual speeds are sometimes half as fast. Although the study found that 2.2 percent of Americans lack sufficient internet speeds, a 2016 Federal Communications Commission report says the number is closer to 10 percent. According to the education study, two out of every three online deserts are physical ones as well, so the number of Americans living in complete education deserts is likely closer to 6 or 7 percent.

This phenomenon hits Native Americans the hardest: 11.8 percent live in complete education deserts and 22.6 percent live in physical education deserts. “This study demonstrates what many Native Americans, rural Americans, and other Americans living in education deserts already know: The internet has not untethered all of us from our geographic locations,” researchers said in the report. “As long as broadband access depends on geography, place still plays an important role in access to higher education.”

Living in an education desert affects education levels, income, and overall quality of life. The median income for an individual who does not live in an education desert was $15,000 more than a person who does not have access to higher education ($56,500 compared to $41,000).

People who live in education deserts are also 6 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 18 percent less likely to graduate from college. Only 45 percent of people in complete education deserts are currently enrolled in college, compared to 61 percent of people who live in an area with broadband and have access to local universities.

To bridge this gap, researchers suggest the federal government help increase broadband access by funding broadband deployment projects in rural areas. Once communities have faster internet speeds, colleges could help students access higher education by continuing to provide aid for books, supplies and transportation. Community colleges could also partner with selective public and private institutions in the area to create programs that allow students to ease into a four-year program after starting at a two-year college or receiving an associate degree.