Along with other pernicious myths, the media stereotype of the college student often figures undergraduates traveling far from home to live in a dorm on a leafy campus. The reality is far from the case: over 50% of students enrolled in four-year public college do so close to their home. This means that the geography of higher ed institutions strongly determines the options available to a given student. While a large share of higher education policy discourse justly attempts to improve students’ access to information (on school costs, financial aid information, completion rates, or post-graduation employment statistics, and the like) to inform their school choices, political attention to geographic access remains sparse.
Previous research on the geography of higher ed has simply reported the number of institutions in a given area. But the raw number of schools is ambiguous, as it fails to account for enrollment. We wanted to complicate the picture: given the uneven distribution of higher ed institutions and institution types—public and private non-profits, as well as for-profits of all kinds—around the country, we wanted to examine what role market concentration might play in a higher education industry increasingly characterized by a wide divide between elite institutions and the landscape of what Tressie McMillan Cottom has termed "Lower Ed." Starting from the perspective that many students are not going to travel long distances to be in residence full-time at a leafy campus, how many options are they realistically looking at? And what’s the relationship between concentration, disparities on the basis of race, class, and geography, institutions’ resulting market power, and college cost, debt loads, and post-graduate earnings?
There are a vast number of zips with a concentration index of 10,000 (only one school nearby). Just as concerning are the number of zips that lack an index altogether—these are known as education deserts. (For more on these regions, see the work of Nicholas Hillman here.) In 2016, across the states and territories, 5.4 million individuals lived in education deserts, lacking access to any type of higher education institution. If we narrow our analysis to public schools, the statistics get worse; 10.1 million individuals live in public education deserts and 30.7 million individuals have access to only one public school. This means over 40.8 million people in the United States and US territories have access to at most one public higher education institution nearby.
In October 2016, 19.1 million people—roughly 5.93% of the US population—were in some type of postsecondary school.1 Applying this same statistic to our 40.8 million individuals who lack public choice, we arrive at a staggering 2.4 million higher ed bound individuals being subjected to an extremely concentrated public higher education market (sci = 10,000 or education desert). These numbers become far worse when we shorten our driving distance to 30 minutes, or switch to examining the private not-for-profit or private for-profit markets.