Research News

UW's Hillman co-authors blog for Brookings Institution exploring education deserts

April 18, 2016

UW-Madison’s Nicholas Hillman recently co-authored a blog post for the Brookings Institution's website titled, “Where you live rather than what you know? The problem with education deserts."
The post, for Brookings' The Brown Center Chalkboard blog, explores how geography affects educational equity and opportunity.

As defined by Hillman and co-author Brian A. Sponsler, "Education deserts are pockets, measured at the county-level, within and among states where there is either no college or university located nearby or a single community college is the only public broad-access institution nearby."

These deserts exist in nearly every state and affects 13 million adults. 

Nicholas Hillman
Hillman and Sponsler write: “Increasingly, research suggests that where students live impacts their likelihood of attending college. Today’s college students are increasingly place-bound, working full-time, and are balancing a number of other responsibilities while taking classes. Their choices are determined by what is nearby, regardless of how much college knowledge they may have about alternative options.”

Hillman and Sponsler explain how even students with high levels of college knowledge may find themselves having few college opportunities simply because of where they live.

According to Hillman and Sponsler, a majority of undergraduate students enroll in colleges near where they live.

“Today’s college students work full-time, care for dependents, and may not have the luxury to “shop around” for colleges far away from home. The majority of college students are not just that; they are parents, care-givers, employers and employees.  In essence, they are grounded in their communities by factors and commitments that make moving great distances to pursue a postsecondary education difficult,” write Hillman and Sponsler. 

Moving forward, Hillman and Sponsler suggest that decision makers need to be intentional about dealing with the impact of place and how it affects students' choices on postsecondary education.

"To-date, geography has played a limited role in important debates about college access and attainment. By emphasizing the significance of place, policymakers might find creative and equitable ways to improve educational opportunities," write Hillman and Sponsler. 

Hillman is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and is an affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE). He recently co-authored a ​paper published in the American Council on Education titled, “Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of ‘Place’ in the Twenty-First Century," which garnered significant media attention.

Sponsler is director of the postsecondary and workforce development institute at Education Commission of the States, working with leadership across the states to develop sound public policy in support of student success.