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Future economist explores N.C.’s ‘education deserts’

by Luanne Williams

First in his family to pursue a college degree, rising junior Matthew Warren knows not every North Carolina high school student has the same opportunities. His summer research project will help figure out why 'education deserts' leave some students high and dry.  

When New Salem resident Matthew Warren decided to go to college, he had a number of options close to home. But had he still lived in Halifax County, the more rural area of the Tar Heel state where he spent his first six years, that would not have been the case.

It’s that disparity that has the Wingate University mathematics/business major poring over reams of information this summer.

A male college student and female professor discuss their research at a conference room table.

Winners of one of seven 2018 Reeves Summer Research grants, Warren and economics professor Kristin Stowe have been collecting details about every college in the state and examining socioeconomic data from North Carolina’s 2,000-plus census tracts. They’ll use mapping software to help analyze the data but have already worked to identify the state’s “education deserts.”

“This is similar to what you hear about food deserts, except rather than not having access to fresh foods, people who live in these areas do not have good access to quality educational opportunities,” Warren explains. He said about a third of North Carolina’s census tracts, mostly in rural areas, fall into that category – having no colleges or universities or having just one community college as the only public, broad-access institution.

“Living in the state, you see a lot of numbers that describe the state as a whole, and it seems like there is plenty of access to higher education,” Warren says. “But when you look more closely, you realize that there is a lot more disparity at a finer level. Living in Charlotte is not the same as living in Rutherford County or Hoke County. A lot of universities are clustered around a handful of large cities, so the opportunities are not as spread out as it would seem.”

A map of North Carolina showing some areas in green, others in grey.

Stowe said that even in a day when internet access and online learning opportunities are growing, for students pursuing higher education, distance still matters.

“Studies show that most students attend a college within 50 miles of home, so if there is no school within 50 miles, you may not go,” Stowe says.

She hopes the research she and Warren are doing can help identify factors that make it likely for an area to be an education desert.

“A college education has been called ‘the great equalizer,’ and has been shown to dramatically increase the likelihood of upward social mobility, regardless of one’s socioeconomic background,” Stowe wrote in her research proposal. “This project will look at several questions related to the existence of such large regional differences in educational attainment levels.”

Decline of U.S. manufacturing

Warren puts a face on one aspect of the higher-education-desert problem.

“Say you are from Duplin County and graduate from high school,” he says, speaking of a small eastern North Carolina county. “The manufacturing plant your father worked at is closed. Your choices are to get a job someplace like Food Lion or go off to college and try to get a higher-skilled job that requires a college degree. These areas where manufacturing used to be very prevalent are now struggling.”

Warren points to a split in America’s economic recovery from the Great Recession that highlights the increasing importance of higher education. A Georgetown University study shows that of the 11.6 million jobs created between 2010 and 2016, nearly 75 percent (or 8.4 million) have gone to people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A female college professor sits in front of a laptop.

Finding out more about the hurdles that keep some students from earning the degrees they need is a fitting goal for Stowe, who has done prior research on municipal bankruptcies and on colleges and universities that have closed.

“Being in higher education and in a school that brings in a lot of students from North Carolina, I’m interested in who we are serving and how we can better serve students from these education deserts,” Stowe says. In addition to analyzing characteristics of the target areas, she and Warren will also give each part of the state a rating.

“We’ll look at the census tracts and rank them in terms of education access, so we’ll create a ranking system or some kind of star system to do that,” she says.

Stowe believes the research results will be helpful beyond the higher-education arena and could inform policy makers by highlighting service gaps.

The first in his family to go to college, Warren fell in love with economics after taking Econ. 221 during his first semester, and he now plans to pursue a graduate degree in the subject.

“I’m a rising junior, and getting to do this kind of research this early is a big advantage,” he says.

Having learned about the Reeves Summer Research grant from a 2017 recipient, he started investigating research topics last fall and says he has already learned a lot about data collection and organization. He plans to apply for an internship at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s Charlotte Office next summer, hoping for a post of regional economic research analyst. He believes that having the research experience will help him stand out among other applicants.

Stowe agrees. “These summer research programs are one of the many things Wingate does really well to get our students ready for graduate school and for job opportunities after graduation,” she says.

Warren expects to present the results of his and Stowe’s research early next year either at the conference of the Academy of Economics and Finance or at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research.

July 12, 2018

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