Nicholas Hillman: How students and teachers approach college in ‘education deserts’
February 27, 2020 | By Laura Edghill
Sunshine Bible Academy Superintendent and Principal Jason Watson wishes his students had better access to college representatives. The private Christian school in Hand County, S.D., serves 75 students, nearly two-thirds of whom live on campus. The universities within a four- to five-hour driving distance are scattered in different directions, making tours impractical for many families.
“It’s not overly convenient for our students to go on college visits or to have reps from colleges visit us,” Watson said.
Sunshine Bible Academy is in what scholar Nicholas Hillman of the University of Wisconsin calls an “education desert.” The lack of nearby higher education options can put students at a disadvantage after high school. But I found some schools that are working to counteract those negatives to give students more options.
States like Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, and South Dakota have 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 community colleges and public and private universities on an interactive map. In Nevada, for example, unless students are near Reno or Las Vegas, they won’t find a community college for hundreds of miles.
College attendees in education deserts must deal with inflated prices at universities that have a monopoly in the region and with the increased prevalence of high-pressure recruiting for online for-profit colleges, according to the Jain researchers. That can affect whether students go to college at all, Hillman wrote in a 2016 report: “The [farther] a student lives from a college or university, the less likely he or she is to enroll.”
Schools like Sunshine Bible Academy and Dakota Christian School in Corsica, S.D., are trying to bridge the gap between rural education and college. The two schools estimated they send about half of their graduates to four-year colleges, while the other half might pursue an associate’s degree, technical certification, military service, or enter the workforce directly.
“I think 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,” Dakota Christian School CEO Jeremy Boer said. “Then we have a few that kind of want to experience something new, so they move to Sioux Falls or something like that.”
Bismarck State College in neighboring North Dakota takes a flexible approach to reach a far-flung population of future students.
“Knowing that we are in a more rural area, we try to keep our classes as affordable and as accessible as possible,” said Karen Erickson, the school’s dean of enrollment. “So I think that helps a lot with attracting students because we have a lot of classes and programs that both can be completed online or on campus.”
Erickson pointed out that in his neck of the woods, distance is not always as much of a limiting factor as city folk might think.
“It’s not unheard of that somebody commutes 60 miles one way into work or for educational opportunities,” he said. “It’s something that people in the more rural states are very familiar with because driving 60 miles here, maybe at 75 to 80 miles an hour, might be only a 40-minute commute.”