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Access to higher education is unequal in America, according to new research that shows education deserts across institution sectors, particularly in rural areas.

The new report and interactive map created by the Jain Family Institute depicts how institutions of higher education are more concentrated in urban hubs and the eastern part of the country. The research looks at the accessibility of higher education by enrollment figures and the concentration of colleges. It maps access to postsecondary institutions at the ZIP code level in all U.S. states and territories.

The report, which was released Wednesday, found that 30.7 million Americans have access to only one public institution, while 10.1 million Americans live in public education deserts. The report also found that the richest ZIP codes have less of a concentration of institutions than poorer ZIP codes (meaning colleges are more spread throughout wealthier areas).

The research team was led by Laura Beamer, the institute's higher education finance project lead, and Marshall Steinbaum, assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah and a senior research fellow at the institute.

“One thing that’s different about our map and our research is that it’s at the ZIP code level and we’ve included U.S. territories, which are largely ignored when it comes to higher education access,” said Beamer. “We defined an education desert as those geographic areas where there’s no local access to higher education. We also tied it to the American communities survey data, so we can see the people who are being affected by these education deserts.”

The researchers also were able to examine the relationship between income and access, finding “the poorer you are, the less access you have.”

The map breaks down institutions by type and allows users to filter their searches based on these sectors: public, private and for-profit. It also filters by the level of degree offered.

It shows in blaring red, green and yellow the wide disparities across the country. The report builds and expands on existing knowledge of this divide.

The research looks at the role of for-profit institutions, showing that regions with little to no access to public institutions have an increased presence of for-profits.

“There’s discussion about access to higher education and how existing institutions can appeal to nontraditional populations,” said Steinbaum. “I think higher ed people are pretty well aware of the business model of the for-profits, but it just comes out very clearly on the maps that those institutions exist in order to serve underserved populations that are not well served by traditional higher education institutions.”

Geography plays a key role in the options and opportunities available to a student. Access to postsecondary education across the country is vital, as 50 percent of students choose to study close to home, and disparities in opportunities can lead to inequality. JFI’s report includes driving time as a factor in concentration.

In the continental United States, the Rocky Mountain and Plains regions were the worst off with accessibility, while New England and the Mideast (meaning the Mid-Atlantic region and states just to the west) were on the other end of the spectrum. Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming were in “pure monopoly” territory on JFI’s scale of median institution concentration.

Both Steinbaum and Beamer pointed to striking differences when changing the map to highlight the concentration of nonprofit and for-profit institutions. They said for-profits are giving nontraditional students access to a postsecondary education they wouldn’t have otherwise.

“There’s just huge swaths of country where there’s high concentration -- there’s red and dark-maroon areas -- and a lot of these are in the West and the Midwest, which have low access to public higher ed,” said Beamer. “Once you toggle to private for-profit, concentration gets better for these areas. So that really complicates that tuition-free debate on community colleges.”

“I don’t want this research to be read as countering the push to free college,” said Steinbaum. But he said the current conversation around free college proposals doesn't address issues of access raised by the report.

"I worry that if all that happens is essentially goosing up the existing public higher education systems by trying to replace lost state funding with federal funding," he said, "that’s not going to make them accessible to nontraditional populations."

“We certainly agree that free college is important and it’s a step in the right direction. We just don’t want policy makers to forget about students and areas where there aren’t any public options,” Beamer said. “Whether that’s subsidizing education at privates in those areas or providing more funding for students that have to travel long distances or even move -- these types of solutions are something we all need to think about in the tuition-free debate.”

The researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to create their school concentration index. The index covers every ZIP code and takes into account varying commute distances for students.

This report is the first of three, with the second and third reports coming out early next year. The next two reports will consider price and debt in relation to concentration of colleges. Beamer said their goal is to get the research out while there is still time for the issues to be discussed during the presidential debates.

“I think it’s important to highlight these issues of geographic disparities,” said Steinbaum. “In some ways these are proxies for other disparities that exist in the higher education sector, especially on the basis of race.”

The Jain Family Institute is a nonpartisan research organization founded in 2015 that focuses on social science research and policy.

“Concentration for the higher ed market will get worse, and it’s something policy makers need to be ready for,” said Beamer. She said potential solutions discussed in other scholarship include restructuring higher education to close these deserts, making shuttles available to students and compensating students who have to move.

Beamer also said declining populations and fertility rates as well as more college mergers also could threaten students' access to higher education.

“Making sure they have options in the first place is super important,” Beamer said.

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