“Mississippi” and “desert” don’t usually appear in the same sentence (hello, rice paddies and bayous!). However, did you know that many locations in our state are classified as “higher education deserts”?

Maybe you’ve felt frustrated that you must travel so far to a university or even community college. This article might explain a few things! You’ll also be equipped with the tools you need to get your college education wherever you live in Mississippi.

What is an education desert?

Simply explained, a higher education desert is any place where people don’t have LOCAL access to college/higher education classes and resources.

“Local” can be a relative term, depending on whether you’re traveling by moped, city bus, or express train. In one study, commissioned by the American Council of Education, a higher education desert is a place “with either of the following two conditions:

  1. Zero colleges or universities are located nearby, or
  2. One community college is the only public broad-access institution nearby.”

The report determined reasonable distances that people might be willing to commute to access college resources. You can look at maps to see if your county qualifies as a higher education desert.

Another important study of higher education deserts was done in 2019 by the Jain Family Institute. This study looks at the time (rather than distance) that residents must travel to reach college resources. From this perspective, an educational desert is a place without college resources within 30, 45, or 60 minutes, depending on how you sort the data. 

You can explore the interactive map here. Type in your zip code to see how your location ranks… places with lower “School Concentration Index” (SCI) numbers have more educational options available. Green areas have ample access to higher ed institutions, and red areas are considered “higher education deserts.”

These studies and others show that close proximity is very important when it comes to helping students access college resources. A community without easy access to college options is like a “desert” without life-giving resources.

Finally, sometimes the term “higher education desert” describes a place where there is high demand for a certain skillset, but no training or degree programs for the workforce.

This definition is highlighted in this article which talks about how one university is staying ahead of these skills gaps and proactively adding programs to keep up with the workforce needs. Mississippi community colleges and universities, along with state boards of higher education, work diligently to prevent a detrimental gap between training and labor needs and to provide relevant degree (i.e., healthcare and technology) and certificate (i.e., automotive and technical) programs for students.

Are there higher education deserts in Mississippi?

Yes: based on the above study from the Jain Family Institute, there are many places in MS that don’t have a public higher education institution within 30, 45, or even 60 minutes.

There are even more places that have local access to only one institution. For students who like choices, it feels limiting to have just one college option.

Most of the higher education deserts in MS are in rural areas. Are you curious about your hometown/city? You can explore the interactive map by zip code, school options, and travel times here.

What is Mississippi doing to improve access to higher education?

We can’t change the fact that many places in our state are classified as “rural” and lack local access to college resources. Our state’s natural beauty and wide-open spaces are something we are proud of!

However, Mississippi continues to work actively to add resources that help students access college education options. It’s important that all residents can achieve the education that can improve their lives and communities.

Just one of the state programs is called Complete 2 Compete (C2C). It’s a program that helps people with a few college credits return to college to complete a degree.

Here are a few benefits that adults can access through the C2C program:

One MS graduate said this about the C2C program: “Over the years, I have worked menial jobs. I have been passed up for new opportunities because someone else had more education than I did. … The impact of a college degree is important because it is something that I will always have. I have the ability to earn more money and explore more opportunities. Best of all, no one can ever take my achievement— my education— away from me! … With proper scheduling, support, and the C2C program, it is possible for you to achieve your educational goals while taking care of other responsibilities in your life.” – Courtney Ware-Isgett.

“What should I do if I live in a higher education desert?”

It’s a common stereotype: we tend to think that students graduate from high school and then move hours away to attend college for 4 years. IRL (in real life), most students attend college close to home, and many students are NOT just out of high school.

You are NOT alone if you’re an adult student without the option to “quit life and go to college for 4 years.” This means that flexible college options are essential.

Thankfully, all of the 24 public universities & community colleges in MS provide online classes. Many even offer online programs (which means you can earn the degree online without any in-person classes). Students can learn any place where there is internet access! Many institutions also offer virtual tutoring and flexible class times.

Navigating college decisions isn’t easy for anyone, especially if you live in a rural area without local access to schools. If this describes you, we encourage you to fill out the easy survey app to connect with a C2C representative. This rep will help answer any questions and will connect you with a C2C Coach.

These coaches are experts in helping students navigate college decisions. They serve MS adult students who already have a few college credits, so if you stopped your college pursuit for any reason completing the app is a valuable next step for you.

If you’re curious about the challenges and opportunities of online learning, you can learn more here.

Even in rural areas, stand out with a college degree

Finally: if you DO live in a higher education desert, you have a chance to differentiate yourself. Most education deserts are in rural areas, which tend to have a great need for registered nurses (and other medical professionals), elementary and high school teachers, agricultural managers, and other positions that require more education.

These jobs and many others require degrees. If you’ve braved the “desert” and obtained your associate or bachelor’s degree anyway, you are positioning yourself to compete for these important careers.

This highlights another perk of choosing an online degree program. If you live in an area with a high demand for a certain skillset, but with no local training/degree programs, you can really stand out if you have achieved a degree in that field. Holding a degree – perhaps earned in a flexible online program – can really help you stand out where there is great need for trained professionals. The pandemic has also left us with more remote jobs than ever before. College graduates can choose to live in a rural area and work a job anywhere in the United States or even the world! 

Don’t stay “stuck” in a higher education desert

Even if you don't have any nearby college options, MS offers many options for people to get college degrees.

The Complete 2 Compete (C2C) program provides a lot of resources to help returning adults go back to college… wherever you live in Mississippi. Complete the quick survey app to connect with a free coach and other resources.