First we had Food Deserts, those regions of the country, or city neighborhoods, where residents are low-income and either live one mile from an urban full-service supermarket or 10 miles in rural areas. The USDA and local governments promoted the concept in order to prod supermarket chains to open up new urban locations, celebrating every new urban Whole Foods Market that opens up in these neighborhoods.
Then we had Child Care Deserts, in which the Center for American Progress manipulated census data in an effort to prove that large numbers of American parents had no child daycare facilities in which to place their children. By using census tract-level data, they labelled families as lacking child care options even when a place in a more commercial part of town, or even just across the street, might have plenty of capacity.
Now it’s Higher Education Deserts, defined by the Urban Institute in the study, “Disconnected from Higher Education,” as parts of the country that lack ready access to four-year universities, either physically or virtually. In the former case, they are defined as areas more than 25 miles away from such a “broad-access” (non-selective, public) university, and in the latter case, defined as areas where no internet service of 25 Mbps is available. They calculate 3 million adults live in a higher education desert in both respects, without access to a physical or virtual higher education. There’s a lovely clickable map at the link in which, not surprisingly, nearly the whole of Alaska, as well as large portions of the American West are “deserts.”
But let’s take a moment to look critically at their methodology. Yes, the FCC defines 25 Mbps as a benchmark for “advanced telecommunications capability,” but this is a meaningless metric if one wants to identify speeds necessary to successfully study via an online university. In fact, the FCC identifies speeds of only 5 Mbps as the requisite level for “student” use. The only activity for which 25 Mbps is needed is “streaming Ultra HD 4K video.” And 25 miles is, for country-dwellers and many urbanites as well, a perfectly ordinary distance to drive.
Now, maybe the Urban Institute and the report’s authors didn’t have access to data that measures Americans’ access to the internet at these lower speeds, but that doesn’t justify writing a report, with a call for action for more satellite locations for public universities, and greater federal subsidy of broadband/high-speed internet, based on that faulty data. One suspects that, had they used a lower threshold, they would have produced results which were not remotely as dramatic. As it is, these results are not really that dramatic in the first place, given that they’re reporting that 99 percent of Americans have either easy driving access to a 4-year university, or the ability to contract ultra-high-speed internet access, or both.
Turns out, this report builds on a similar study from 2016, “Education Deserts, The Continued Significance of ‘Place’ in the Twenty-First Century” by the American Council on Education, which measures access to a “broad-access” university, and defines this more specifically. A university needs to accept virtually all of their applicants to “count” so that, for example, Lexington-Lafayette, Kentucky and Columbia, South Carolina, are counted as “education deserts” despite the presence of flagship universities, because those universities have an acceptance rate that is lower than 75 percent.
As a result, they calculate that 12.9 million adults live in “deserts,” defined by “commuting zones” (a distance that’s not firmly defined). The 12.9 figure is lower than the Urban Institute’s figure of 38 million living in “physical deserts,” because the Urban Institute has a narrower 25-mile restriction, but lower than its figure of 3 million living in both physical and virtual deserts, because the ACE report doesn’t account for online education.
Here’s the bottom line: People living in rural areas naturally lack access to urban and suburban conveniences, amenities and “necessities.” You could just as easily speak of a “symphony orchestra desert” in rural areas. Over a decade ago, it was a rural “department store desert” that brought the Sears catalog into being. Now, as a result of e-commerce, we’re seeing “bookstore deserts” and “toy store deserts,” what with the latest Barnes and Noble and Toys ‘R’ Us closings. Or, less facetiously, you could map out the portion of the country which relies on well water and septic systems rather than city water and sewer, then sound the alarm at the scandalous lack of provision of clean water and sewage treatment in these areas.
And there are real aspects of “desertification” that pose real worries, say, to public health professionals, when small rural hospitals close their doors or shut down their maternity wards. Some of this is the result of rising cost pressure. The population loss in rural areas and resulting decline in number of babies born plays a role as well. And of course there’s no online equivalent to remedy a lack of hospitals or maternity wards.
So, sounding the alarm about made up “deserts” really does more harm than good. Think tanks should work on fixing real and meaningful problems Americans face, rather than drumming up these kinds of dramatic problems that exist as little more than an excuse to write more scorecards and metrics for academics and policy analysts.