The conversation about how to make college more accessible is not new, but a critical piece of the debate has been largely ignored.

The geography of where schools are located and the impact of so-called education deserts on students is the topic of a new paper by a pair of researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“If higher education is to better serve students and expand educational opportunities,” the paper asserts, “then stakeholders must prioritize the importance of place and understand how it shapes college options.”

First-generation and low-income college students are disproportionately likely to attend schools close to home. Increasing numbers of college students are also parents and breadwinners, too, with community ties and jobs that are difficult to uproot. So even when these students are informed about schools far away that might be a good fit, or given scholarships to attend, many, for a variety of reasons both financial and cultural, choose to stay local.

And that can seriously limit their access to college.

The paper points out that more than 57 percent of incoming first-year students who enroll in public four-year schools attend college within 50 miles of home. Students of color and those from lower-income families are even more likely to stay nearby.

Where there are good, affordable, and accessible (not highly selective) options within close range, that’s not a bad thing.

But the paper finds that between 6 and 12 percent of the nation’s adult population lives in an education desert, and between 1.29 and 2.86 million students attend college in education deserts. Most are in the Midwest and Great Plains states, but education deserts are everywhere, and their residents tend to have lower-than-average educational attainment levels. Many are home to colleges, but not broadly accessible public institutions.

“As we talk about equity going forward and we talk about post-traditional students, I do think it’s really an important dynamic and we are going to have to consider it,” said Sarita Brown, the president of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit that has looked extensively at ways to expand college access. “Does every student have access to a quality education, if, in fact, the distribution of educational institutions by happenstance or by taxpayer investments sidesteps areas where population growth is occurring?”

Take Columbia, South Carolina. Twenty private colleges serve 13,600 students, but there is just one community college educating 17,800 students. In Laredo, Texas, 94 percent of adults are Latino, and many are lower-income, first-generation students. The population of 260,000 is served by four schools, but just one, the community college, is accessible. While selective Texas A&M and a couple of for-profit schools (which are accessible but costly) serve 40 percent of students in the area, Laredo Community College alone is tasked with serving the remaining 60 percent, or 20,700 students.

Similar stories are playing out across the country. “The private nonprofit colleges operating in these areas tend to be selective (only one in four are broad-access), while local for-profit colleges tend to be smaller and more expensive institutions,” the report notes. “As a result, public community colleges play a significant role in delivering opportunities to residents of education deserts. The role of the community colleges cannot be understated: They enroll over half of all students who live in education deserts.”

Yet community colleges tend to be some of the most cash-strapped schools, with fewer resources and less robust networks of alumni who can offer students, particularly those without their own built-in networks, a path to prosperity.

The lead author Nicholas Hillman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison says he sees the paper as a “proof of concept” that he hopes will ignite a dialogue about equity and the capacity of the higher-education system to serve students.

The issue, he said, is one that is not going away. Tomorrow’s college students don’t fit the untethered, care-free mold, which makes providing accessible options near home even more critical. Certainly, he acknowledged, addressing barriers that prevent students from attending more distant schools, such as the lack of campus childcare and the high cost, would likely encourage more enrollment everywhere. But that’s not going to eliminate the need for quality options close to home.

And he hits back at the idea of online learning as a panacea. While it works for some students, studies suggest that distance learning has particularly negative effects on students of color and those who work and go to school at the same time.

Brown agrees. “Education is a human enterprise,” she said. “Face time is important.”  

While there’s no easy fix for addressing the number of education deserts, the report suggests modifying the Higher Education Act, America’s primary higher-education law (which is on Congress’s agenda, but unlikely to happen before the 2016 U.S. elections) to help schools in deserts expand their capacity to serve more community residents. Selective schools in college deserts could also work with local community colleges to accept more transfer students or offer opportunities through a partnership.

The New York City College of Technology, Brown noted, has expanded night and weekend classes so students who work can attend. Long Beach City College has increased community outreach and mentoring of underserved students.

“It’s not like it’s not available. It’s still not plentiful,” Brown said. “I think this is the new area for institutions to innovate around.”

Their future could depend on it. College enrollment is down for the fourth straight year, even as more young people and adults say they think degrees are necessary. If we want to address the disconnect and expand access to college, the geography of the options needs to be a part of the conversation.