Education Deserts

What is an education desert?

I grew up in a college town.  I moved from that small college town (Stillwater, OK) to a big college town (Austin, TX).  I have never lived in a place where access to higher education wasn’t down the street or around the corner.  In a way, that is ACC’s philosophy – we have 11 campuses across our service area because we want to reach local communities and provide access to higher education that’s around the corner.

In this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, we learn that there are “substantial pockets of the country . . . where it’s difficult for placebound students to get to a college.”  If you are a first generation student, or an adult student with work and family obligations, you probably can’t “go away to college”.  You need access to higher education within a 50-mile radius.  If you don’t have that access, then you live in an education desert.  I urge you to read the article and explore the data via the maps that they provide – it is all very thought-provoking.

One of the key takeaways in the article for me was this phrase:  “proximity and access”.  ACC has access in its DNA, but we could still think differently about proximity to higher education.  Our online course options are a case in point.

We could make a small dent in the proximity barrier if we worked harder to make our online courses fully accessible online.  And of course we need to think beyond ensuring fully online classes – we also want our online classes to be as engaging and intentional as our face-to-face classes.  We want our online students to have the same learning opportunities and connections with their classmates and their professors as our on-the-ground students have.

We could also make a small dent in the proximity barrier if we saw our online courses as the foundation for online degrees and certificates, rather than just as disparate and disconnected courses.  Our access mission is tied to success, and for many students success is earning an award.  Can we do better in scheduling our online sections so that they support forward progress on certificates and degrees?  I expect we can.

If we value what we do – and I know we do – then we can be part of the solution to the education deserts that impede opportunities for a better life.  We can expand equal access, serve to reduce proximity barriers, and support educational attainment in ways that reduce the education deserts in our region and our state.

As you start a new semester and a new academic year, raise a glass to greater access and greater opportunities.  Raise a glass to the role of community colleges in minimizing education deserts.  Clink!