Education Deserts in the US: How Online Education Can Close the Gap

Last updated on: September 21, 2022

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We know that access to higher education is important. Educated populations experience less unemployment, less crime, improved public health, and greater political and civic engagement. But not all students have convenient geographic access to higher education. In the United States (US), millions of people live in education deserts— counties without any higher education institution. How can universities reach these potential students?

Lets take a closer look at these education deserts and see how online education could help close the gap.

Click the image below to view the full infographic.

In the US, 33 million people across 1,716 countries live in education deserts.

Almost 55% of all US counties and county equivalents (boroughs, parishes, etc.) are education deserts, leaving nearly 10% of the population without immediate access to higher education.

In 12 states, over one million residents live in an education desert.
Georgia: 3.1m
Texas: 2.8m
Indiana: 2m
Virginia: 2m
Kentucky: 1.5m
Wisconsin: 1.3m
Minnesota: 1.2m
Tennessee: 1.2m
Michigan: 1.1m
Mississippi: 1m
Louisiana: 1m

Additionally, three states are right on the cusp of having one million residents in an education desert.
Alabama: 997,263
Ohio: 996,151
Illinois: 986,927

In nine states, >25% of the population lives in an education desert.
South Dakota: 40%
Wyoming: 36%
Mississippi: 34%
Kentucky: 33%
Indiana: 29%
Georgia: 29%
Iowa: 29%
Arkansas: 26%
Nebraska: 25%

Four states fall into both categories.
For them, having over one million people living in an education desert also mean over a quarter of the state population does not have access to a higher education institution in their home county.
Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, & Mississippi

For most counties, educational availability closely correlates with population.

In general, counties with lower population are more likely to be education deserts. However, education deserts can still exist in fairly populous counties.

Henry County, Georgia is the largest education desert in the US with a population of 245,000 people.

In total, 18 US counties house over 100,000 residents and do not have any higher education institution.

How can online programs make an impact?

Of the 33 million total people who live in an education desert, 31 million live in a county within 50 miles of a school that offers online programs.

This means that online programs could connect nearly 94% of residents in education deserts with access to higher education—almost closing the gap.

The 50-mile radius is key. Our research shows that, in 2022, 48% of online learners sought a school within 50 miles of where they lived.

So, in 18 states, connecting potential students with online programs at schools within 50 miles of their residence could close the gap in higher education access entirely.

Plus, in another 15 states, the gap could be reduced to less than 1% of the state’s population.

Are you prepared for online learners?

Does your university need help getting online programs off the ground? Do you already have an online program and need help reaching potential students? Prepare to meet learners’ needs with our full suite of services for online and on-campus programs.

Gain support in the areas you need by contacting us today.

2019-2020 IPEDS data, U.S. Census Bureau.

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