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U.S. News features expertise of UW-Madison's Hillman in report on higher education deserts

June 03, 2019

UW-Madison’s Nick Hillman, a leading researcher in the field of higher education deserts, recently shared his perspectives on this topic with U.S. News and World Report.

Hillman is an associate professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and is the director of UW-Madison’s Student Success through Applied Research Lab.

At a time when two out of every three undergraduates enroll in a two-year or four-year degree program within 25 miles of their home, according to Department of Education data, Hillman urges policymakers to pay attention to one of the most overlooked aspects of college access and opportunity: geographic inequality.

Nick Hillman
U.S. News explains how Hillman identifies higher education deserts by calculating how many colleges and universities are located within the Department of Agriculture’s 709 commuting zones, which cluster counties together based on commuting patterns and shared economic activity. He has identified 392 education deserts across the country, many of which are concentrated in rural areas of low population density.

However, Hillman notes that higher education deserts can and do exist in places where the average population is nearly 180,000. Many areas can even be a mirage of higher education opportunity, hosting only elite private schools and limited public colleges.

Hillman explains to U.S. News that his interest in higher education deserts is personal: His hometown is the factory community of Elkhart, Indiana, which “lives and dies by the recreational vehicle industry.” He tells U.S. News that people in his community were often discouraged from returning to college simply because the closest one was 30 miles away.

While building new colleges isn’t realistic and online virtual schools present their own set of obstacles, Hillman suggests a boost in Pell Grant funding for students who live in higher education deserts. This idea is currently being considered by members of Congress as they begin to work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

Read the full U.S. News story here.

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