Creating an Oasis in the “Education Desert”

Photo Credit: The Universities at Shady Grove

Geography will play an increasingly important role in college students’ decision-making as the 21st-century evolution of higher education continues. As the nontraditional student population grows, they will be seeking more convenient, cost-efficient options for earning a degree – one of which is the ability to live at home for as long as possible. The American Council on Education reported in February that already, 57 percent of incoming freshmen attending public four-year colleges enroll within 50 miles of their permanent home.

The report, Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century, emphasizes that many of today’s college students are simply not as mobile as in years past. They and their families may not have the financial means to consider options outside of their existing communities. And, as the nontraditional student population grows, factors like full- or part-time jobs and dependent care will become increasingly prominent.

For students in areas rich with higher education options, this does not pose a problem. However, for students located in the country’s “education deserts,” it can have a crippling effect. The report’s authors define an education desert as a place with one of two conditions: no colleges or universities are located nearby, or a single community college serves as the only public broad-access institution.

Montgomery County in Maryland used to be one of these education deserts, which became more and more of an issue as the county’s population shifted, with fewer students able to move away for college – but local employers needing a degree-holding workforce. Montgomery County and the state of Maryland came up with an innovative solution to this challenge: The Universities at Shady Grove (USG).

USG offers a single, stand-alone campus just 20 miles northwest of Washington D.C. where students can earn bachelor’s (and even master’s) degrees from nine of the 12 schools in the Maryland state university system. Most students start at a community college and then apply to attend the school of their choice on the USG campus. Each university hires and places its own faculty at USG, and the students’ diplomas come from that university, not USG. There are a limited number of degree options, and what is offered is tailored to employers’ needs in the region. But, there’s no question that USG empowers and equips those invested in living, learning and working in Montgomery County. It’s an oasis of opportunity.

Undoubtedly, a solution like USG is rife with challenges for a participating university. How do you create a student experience for a remote location that reflects or is at least complementary to the main campus? How do you protect brand integrity when you are sharing physical space and community ownership with other schools – including competitors?

However, one of the defining trends of higher education in our modern world will be access – understanding the realities of the student population and meeting them where they are. No one will be immune to the resulting challenges. Colleges and universities with smart, strategic solutions and the right approach to educating students on their options are best poised to survive and thrive.

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