Higher education deserts

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: education deserts. 

We hear a lot from politicians and activists about college affordability—or lack of it. But for some students, cost isn’t as much of a barrier as is geography. Many parts of the country don’t have any institution of higher education within a reasonable driving distance.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: That leaves millions of students, especially in the wide open ranges of the Plains and Rockies with limited options for higher education. Colleges are doing what they can to make it easier for students to get to class. But high school graduates are also finding creative ways to connect with their future plans.

WORLD reporter Laura Edghill has the story.

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: About 75 students attend Sunshine Bible Academy in Miller, South Dakota. Two-thirds of them live on campus. 

With nothing but farmland as far as the eye can see, students are free to concentrate on their studies and spiritual growth. But the rural setting makes it hard for high schoolers to evaluate prospective colleges. Several universities lie within a four- to five-hour drive. But they’re scattered in different directions.

Jason Watson is Sunshine Bible’s superintendent and principal.

WATSON: It’s not overly convenient for our students to go on college visits, or to have reps from colleges visit us. We get some reps that come through, but they’re mostly from the schools that are in our state and, you know, they kind of tack us on when they’re also visiting the public school which is 13 miles from us.

The academy is in what Nicholas Hillman of the University of Wisconsin calls an “education desert.” The lack of nearby higher education options can put students at a real disadvantage after high school. 

States like the Dakotas, Idaho, and Nevada may be saturated with magnificent sprawling landscapes, but that sprawl means colleges and universities are few and far between. Researchers with the Jain Family Institute recently analyzed the entire nation by ZIP code and plotted the concentration of all types of colleges on an interactive map. 

Their work revealed vast regions of scarcity, particularly across the Plains and Rockies. For example, Nevada students who live outside the hubs of Reno or Las Vegas won’t find even a community college for hundreds of miles, let alone a four-year university. 

But Jason Watson says Sunshine Bible students seem to find their way in the world, even if they don’t opt for the traditional college experience.

WATSON: I would say that probably only 50 to 60 percent of them are pursuing a four-year college. We actually have quite a few that go to technical school, and particularly in the areas of welding or something related to the agricultural field, you know, some kind of animal science type thing. We’ve actually in the last few years had a fair number that also go into the military.

One thing the researchers’ map doesn’t show is how some colleges on the edge of education deserts are trying to bridge that gap. 

Bismarck State College in neighboring North Dakota takes a flexible approach to reach a far-flung population of students. Karen Erickson is dean of enrollment for the community college.

ERICKSON: Knowing that we are in a more rural area, we try to keep our classes as affordable and accessible as possible. So I think that helps a lot with attracting students because we have a lot of classes and programs that can be completed online or on campus.

And Erickson says when students can’t get to classes on campus, the college tries to take the classes to them.

ERICKSON: We offer a lot of programs in more rural areas. So sometimes when we have a community that has a very high demand that they need filled for place-bound workers, we can try to bring that program to their area to help fulfill that need within that community.

Bismarck State also makes it possible for some students to avoid a lengthy commute.

ERICKSON: We do have the luxury, most community colleges don’t have student housing. We don’t have enough by any means, but we do have beds for just over 400 students on our campus.

Dakota Christian School in Corsica, South Dakota, also works hard to bridge the gap between rural education and college. Like similarly sized Sunshine Bible Academy, Dakota Christian sends about half its graduating seniors on to four-year schools. CEO Jeremy Boer says his students also seem to find their way, education desert or not.

BOER: We have a certain number that know exactly what they want to do and they go to a tech school or go right into the workforce. And then we have a few that kind of want to experience something new so they move to, yeah, Sioux Falls or something like that.

He also says that in their neck of the woods, distance is not always as much of a limiting factor as city folk might think.

BOER: Honestly geography’s not really a huge one I don’t think like I said, the mileage looks a lot, but when the speed limit’s 65 everywhere you go, I mean, the mileage really isn’t a huge issue I wouldn’t say. As compared to, I mean, driving through a city, I mean, it takes you what, half an hour to go 20 miles, whereas we can go, well if you go for half an hour you’re going 35, 40 miles pretty easy.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Laura Edghill.

(Photo/Bismarck State College)

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