What on Earth Is an 'Education Desert'?

An Urban Institute study argues that millions of Americans don't have access to college or Internet.

Brian Mark Weber · Feb. 9, 2018

The Left is always looking to exploit its next group of victims. Sure, there will always be those who fall through the cracks of the American political, social or economic system. And we should always look for ways to utilize free-market solutions to help people rise up and realize their dreams. But progressives are only interested in helping the afflicted in order to expand the authority and influence of the State.

The latest in the Left’s parade of exploitables are those affected by what they call “desertification” — an area of some size that doesn’t have [insert desired service here]. Add this to a growing list of terms drummed up by leftist think tanks in recent decades. Some examples include day care deserts and even food deserts. Now it’s higher education deserts.

This is what the Nanny State has done to our mindset. Some Americans really think it’s unfair or even discriminatory that others should have to drive half an hour to access the services they desire.

A study conducted by the Urban Institute, entitled “Disconnected from Higher Education,” argues that millions of Americans don’t have access to either a four-year university within 25 miles of where they live or don’t have access to Internet speeds of 25 Mbps to efficiently enroll in online degree programs.

Kristin Bragg of the Institute suggests, “For people who do not have a university nearby, online education may be the only avenue to pursue higher education. We estimate that 41 million American adults lack access to a physical university, and of those, 3 million also lack access to an internet connection suitable for online education. An additional 2 million adults lack access to online education but have a physical university nearby.”

Let’s be honest here. Twenty-five miles is hardly a burdensome distance to travel for college students. Do we really need to build more colleges in every town in America? Apparently the Left thinks so. And what’s all this about needing 25 Mbps Internet speed to take online courses?

The FCC’s Broadband Speed Guide notes that a student only needs a minimum of five Mbps for online education platforms. Most online classes feature a wide range of components beyond reading and posting to discussion forums, but most of these require far less than 25 Mbps. For example, streaming a professor’s HD video lecture only requires five to eight Mbps, HD video teleconferencing with classmates requires six Mbps, and downloading important course files takes only 10 Mbps. Sure, it’d be great if every online student in America had the very highest Internet speeds in their homes, but it’s simply not necessary for online courses. Similarly, we could build a four-year university in every town, but who’s going to pay for it?

Elizabeth Bauer writes at The Federalist, “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.” Bauer adds, “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.”

Like most leftist think tanks, the Urban Institute offers no real solutions to these supposed education deserts other than expanding Internet access, but President Donald Trump is already on top of this. The difference is that the president’s plan lets the markets solve the problem.

In January, President Trump signed an executive order that seeks to “reduce barriers to capital investment, remove obstacles to broadband services and more efficiently employ government resources.” He also announced at a speech in Tennessee before thousands of American Farm Bureau Federation members that “those towers are going to go up, and you’re going to have great, great broadband.” USA Today notes that “the order does not appear to allocate any financial resources to the broadband effort.”

And that’s a good thing. When the government touches something, it becomes bureaucratic and inefficient. We really shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money to ensure that every single American lives within walking distance of a four-year college or university, or has premium high-speed Internet for online classes. But the free market can make this determination, as it should.

As Bauer notes, “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. … 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.”

Good point. And if we’re going to talk about “education deserts,” let’s wake up and realize that many four-year colleges and universities today are philosophical deserts themselves — with agenda-driven administrations, politically motivated professors, campus speech codes and “safe spaces.” Do we really want to expand a higher education system that’s rotting away at its core?

The Left has dreamed up many “deserts” in recent years to show that there are millions of Americans without access to something. Unfortunately, their solution would be a socialist dystopia in which fewer people would have access to anything, and the quality of good and services (including education) would diminish.

In the end, the only people who benefit from “desertification” studies are policy wonks working at think tanks and organizations like the Urban Institute. And the fact that, even by Urban’s measure, 99% of Americans already have access to either a four-year university or sufficiently speedy Internet means that leftists are working overtime to spend your money on problems that don’t exist. Imagine that.

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