Geography determines some students' college plans

'The geographic location of colleges is one of the most basic and obvious dimensions of opportunity'

Where students live may have an effect on their college choice and access to higher education, according to a new study.

Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, analyzed institutions in 709 commuting zonesor counties in which people live, work, and commute—to determine the number and selectivity of the schools.

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He found that Latino and African American communities had the fewest and less-selective colleges nearby, while white and Asian communities had a greater overall amount of and more selective institutions nearby. For example, both the Big Spring and Uvalde commuting zones in Texas have about 100,000 residents. However, Big Spring, which is predominantly white, has three community colleges and one public four-year institution. But Uvalde, which is predominantly Latino, has just one community college.

According to Hillman, higher education policy tends to focus more on providing students with information about good college choices rather than addressing the location-based barriers. 

"The geographic location of colleges is one of the most basic and obvious dimensions of opportunity, yet policymakers and researchers often overlook how place shapes students' educational destinations," Hillman says. "Ignoring this context simultaneously ignores structural inequalities built into the postsecondary landscape and fails to prioritize one of the most important forces shaping opportunities for working-class students and students of color."

Hillman recommends that researchers take a deeper look into how college location affects students' higher education opportunities. With such information, policymakers can tackle inequalities that have been "created and sustained through policy decisions" (Gewertz, Education Week, 6/24). 


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