Traditionally, mainstream conversations about getting more students to and through college center on factors like academics, engagement and scheduling.
But, experts say, there’s a missing ingredient: geography.
Especially in the West, many states have “education deserts” — areas where the nearest college is a long drive away, and where the number of students who go to college after high school is low.
Though Spokane residents have abundant access to higher education, Washington is one of 11 states where 10.1 to 20 percent of the population lives in an “education desert,” where it’s at least a 60-minute drive to get to a college campus, according to an analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Geography can present varying challenges. Ferry County residents have unique obstacles: among them, ferocious winters that make long-distance driving hazardous, and the lure of mining for gold.
The nearest large branch of Spokane Community College is in Colville, a 40-mile drive “over a mountain pass that is incredibly difficult to navigate in the winter — and our winter weather here is often quite severe,” said John Glenewinkel, the superintendent of both the Curlew and Republic school districts in Ferry County. “It’s not just distance. It’s geography.”
Spokane Community College does run a small program in Republic, the county seat, although it has reduced the number of class offerings in recent years. “But for many of my kids, that may as well be 100 miles away, because they don’t have transportation,” Glenewinkel said.
And then there’s the problem of gold. Until recently, a productive gold mine in Ferry County allowed a high-school graduate with a good work ethic to make $100,000 a year as a miner. “The incentive to go to college was awfully low,” Glenewinkel said. Last year, however, the mine closed after it ran out of ore.
Curlew and Republic are part of the Rural Alliance for College Success, a group of 84 school districts — most in eastern Washington — that have banded together “to try to equalize the playing field a little for our kids,” Glenewinkel said. For example, the group pools resources to offer college-preparatory classes, like calculus or Spanish, in high schools. “We want to make sure geography doesn’t limit the opportunities for our kids,” he said.
Despite Ferry County’s particular difficulties, proximity remains key, the Chronicle notes. Most students stay close to home to earn a degree, in fact, in 2016, almost 40 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen said their colleges were less than 50 miles from their homes, according a national study of college freshmen.
In Washington, rural superintendents are working to try to get more kids to be better prepared for college or some type of degree after high school, Glenewinkel said.
Like many other rural areas, Ferry County lacks jobs that require a college degree. Many parents didn’t earn degrees themselves, and those rural high-school graduates who get accepted at a college often fail to show up for classes in the fall, a phenomenon known as “summer melt.”
In the nearby Tonasket School District, another part of Washington’s “education desert,” the closest college is a branch of Wenatchee Community College, located in Omak, said Superintendent Steve McCullough. The school district offers “College in the High School,” a dual-credit program that allows students to take college-level classes and earn credit while in high school. The district’s focus is to make sure its students are prepared for college, if they choose to go.
“Other than that, it’s a desert,” he said. “We don’t have the opportunities.”
The Chronicle’s analysis found that 11.2 million adults live more than a 60-minute drive from a public college. Most education deserts are in low-population Western states.
“Especially since the Great Recession, Americans living in rural areas have been left behind in income, assets and health,” The Chronicle wrote. “They’re also more likely to live in an education desert. Where it’s correlation or causation, a college education is linked to higher earnings, better employment rates and overall well-being.”
There’s no easy solution. But some experts suggest that, for a start, educators need to make location a bigger part of the conversation about college.
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