Community Colleges Are Changing the Landscape of Geography Education

It’s only fitting that studying geography—a discipline that contemplates place and space—enables students to take their careers in so many directions. What other field of study can count among its graduates urban planners who assess the costs and benefits of proposed transit systems, state climatologists who monitor the impacts of rising sea levels, consultants who advise firms about moving into new markets, and human rights advocates who work with refugees?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics database lists hundreds of occupations that require knowledge of geospatial technologies. It’s clear that opportunities for geographers and GIS practitioners will only continue to grow in the foreseeable future. Yet because of its interdisciplinary nature and a relative lack of understanding of how versatile it is, geography is facing some major challenges at institutions of higher education, especially in the United States. Core among them are declining enrollments and a lack of diversity that threaten to derail the geospatial workforce.

In the United States, bachelor’s degrees awarded in geography and cartography have declined for seven years running, even though the number of bachelor’s degrees earned overall has risen steadily, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. From a peak of 5,128 geography and cartography bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2012, the numbers have since decreased to just 4,234 in 2019—the lowest they’ve been since 2003. While the percentage of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students earning bachelor’s degrees in geography and cartography has grown over the same period, this group remains significantly underrepresented compared with all graduates of four-year institutions. What’s more, the discipline has performed especially poorly among Black and African American students. In 2019, just 3.5 percent of geography and cartography bachelor’s degrees conferred went to Black or African American students, compared with 9.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees across all disciplines.

A teacher leaning over the desk of two students who are working at a computer
The growth of geography and GIS at the community college level is promising.

So here we are. Geographers—with their cross-disciplinary perspectives that bridge the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities—are among the most qualified professionals to address the complex problems facing our world. The demand for geography and GIS skills has perhaps never been greater, and the intellectual approaches and conceptual tools of the discipline are more relevant than ever. Yet the number of graduates in this field is not only failing to keep pace with workforce demand but is also going in the wrong direction.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The American Association of Geographers (AAG) will soon release its new, comprehensive Guide to Geography Programs in the Americas. This interactive directory will show all the geography, GIS, and closely related programs available in the United States, Canada, and Latin America, at all levels of higher education. And one thing stands out in the data: the growth of geography and GIS at the community college level. The AAG’s annual review of programs found that there are now 210 community colleges in the United States that grant associate’s degrees in geography and GIS, compared with an estimated 158 in 2018. Many more two-year programs offer stand-alone courses in geography, GIS, or related subject areas as well.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, community colleges accounted for roughly 34 percent of all degree-granting institutions in the United States in 2018 and educated more than 42 percent of all US undergraduates that year. Decades of state-level funding cuts for higher education have contributed to significant tuition increases and pushed more of the costs of college onto students. This has made it harder for many people to afford four-year programs. Recent findings from the American Association of Community Colleges show that average annual tuition and fees at community colleges in the United States were $3,730 compared to $10,440 for four-year public institutions.

Community college geography programs are generally much more diverse than their four-year counterparts. Fact-finding conducted by the AAG earlier this year showed that 46 percent of two-year colleges with geography, GIS, or related programs serve communities of color compared to 18 percent of bachelor’s degree-granting programs and 19 percent of master’s and PhD programs. According to Jacqueline Housel and Patrick Shabram, members of the AAG’s Community College Affinity Group, geography at two-year colleges is more agile and adaptable at the local level to students with varying educational and life experiences. Community colleges may also serve as places where students discover geography as a field of study.

Moreover, for students who have historically faced greater economic barriers to gaining higher education, community colleges offer attractive, affordable alternatives to four-year degree programs. That’s because, although many students attend community college with the intent of transferring to four-year geography programs, two-year colleges can provide pathways for direct entry into the workforce—for example, as GIS technicians in fields such as planning, transportation, and resources management. Indeed, it is likely that much of the growth of geography at the community college level is driven by the demand for GIS certifications and technical skill sets that can be acquired at two-year colleges.

At a time when the relevance of geography is being challenged within universities, the growth of geography and GIS at the community college level provides a unique opportunity to turn the tables. It’s a promising indicator of a diverse and growing student body that is, by all indications, eager to learn about geography and gain skills that will enable its members to enter the geospatial workforce.

More must be done to help community college graduates who want to continue their education and gain entry into four-year geography programs. Building these connections may become critical to the viability of the discipline.

Given the strong outlook for career opportunities, the field of geography in higher education should be booming. Let’s make it so.

About the author

Mark Revell

Mark Revell is the manager of career programs and disciplinary research for the American Association of Geographers (AAG). He coordinates a wide range of projects related to careers, professional development, and geography education and serves as editor of the AAG’s Guide to Geography Programs in the Americas. Revell holds a master’s degree in geography from George Washington University.