ACCT Rural Colleges Initiative Fact Finding Begins

As announced last October, ACCT is conducting a comprehensive assessment of the needs of rural community colleges throughout the country as part of a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This assessment is being performed through the convening of trustees and other community stakeholders to learn about and highlight areas of importance and to strategize creative solutions to challenges. Research includes fieldwork in five states (California, Kentucky, Iowa, North Carolina and Texas) and will culminate in a report that will highlight individual case studies, state profiles, and suggested policy solutions to help strengthen all rural community colleges nationwide so that they can continue to support their students and their communities, in 2021. 

What We Already Know

Existing research demonstrates that students who attend rural high schools score higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and they graduate at higher rates than their urban peers. Nevertheless, rural high school students are less likely to attend college than their peers living in urban areas. This is largely due to the greater likelihood that students in rural areas face more acute financial challenges, as well as significant transportation barriers, both of which contribute to their lower enrollment numbers.

The relationship between college proximity and college attendance is well studied, and rural community colleges offer residents affordable education and vocational training that might not be otherwise accessible. Rural community colleges can lessen the impact of education deserts, close attainment gaps, help drive economic growth, and contribute to the sustenance of vibrant communities.

What Remains Unclear

But what does it mean to be a rural community college? Surprisingly to some, various federal agencies use different classifications to determine what qualifies as rural; for example, the Census Bureau defines ‘rural’ by exclusion. That is, any area not classified as an ‘urbanized area’ or an ‘urban cluster’ is considered a rural area. The Census’s classifications are based exclusively on population sizes. This causes some confusion, land used primarily for agricultural purposes is considered by many to be geographically rural, and according to the 2010 decennial Census, more than 95 percent of land in the United States is classified as rural land, while only 19.3 percent of the population is classified as rural. According to definitions from the Office of Management and Budget, about 15 percent of the U.S. population was classified as rural in 2010, while 72 percent of all land was classified as rural. It was immediately apparent as the ACCT rural colleges initiative began that many individuals consider their colleges to be rural institutions, while they are not classified as such according to federal criteria.  

According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a system of surveys within the Department of Education designed to collect data from all primary providers of postsecondary education, and considered industry standard for educational definitions, rurality can be described using three categories: rural remote, rural distant, and rural fringe. Each category is determined based on a college’s distance from an urban center (population of 50,000 or more) and from an urban cluster (population between 2,500 and 50,000). For example, schools that are classified as “rural remote” are the farthest from urban areas. To be considered rural remote, a community college must be located more than 25 miles from an urbanized area and more than 10 miles from an urban cluster. By this definition, there are approximately 260 rural community colleges in the United States that educate close to 670,000 students a year. However, because the IPEDS definition of rural is based solely on distance from urban centers, these figures may underestimate the total number of rural colleges and students served.  

To put all these figures in context, this means that according to the standards used by the Department of Education, only six of the twenty-four community colleges in Kansas are considered rural, and only three in Iowa are considered rural. This is surprising, as Iowa and Kansas are states characterized by low population density and high farmland coverage, both things that intuitively would seem associated with rurality. Iowa boasts the third largest number of farms in the country, with more than 85% of Iowa’s land being used for farming. Kansas has the third highest acreage of farmland in the country, and with thirty-five people per square mile, Kansas is one of the lowest densely populated states (Iowa is slightly denser than Kansas, with fifty-five people per square mile). Shasta College in Redding, California, the only community college in its county, is sixty miles from the next closest college, surrounded by a 150-acre farm, and is also not considered rural by this same definition. 

Why Definitions Matter

It is important to understand the shortcomings of the federal definitions  of rurality, as being designated as rural impacts an institution’s eligibility for state and federal assistance. This assistance can be critical, because while rural community colleges offer unique opportunities and value to their communities, they face an uphill battle to do so: access to high-speed broadband data, for example, is inconsistent and there is often limited availability of some basic services, such as hospitals and first responders. It is also challenging to attract and retain highly qualified faculty to many rural institutions. These issues can hinder the academic capacity of an institution and the success of its students, as well as the economic prowess of the greater community. While there is no guaranteed means by which to solve the wide variety of challenges faced by these institutions, state and federal policy solutions can be developed in conjunction with innovative local strategies to support the long-term viability of these colleges, whether or not they are federally recognized as rural.

Next Steps

As ACCT convenes rural college representatives over the coming year, we will solicit college leaders’ insights into classifications of rural areas and populations in an effort to determine recommendations that will better serve students’, institutions’ and communities’ needs and interests. The association also will work to determine or share creative solutions to common challenges among (formally and informally) rural colleges, such as sourcing faculty, encouraging students to stay local upon graduation, partnerships with area businesses such as hospitals, and others. Although five states have been identified for on-the-ground convenings, ACCT members from rural areas throughout the country are encouraged to contact the association to share needs and innovative solutions for consideration.  

Rachel Rush-Marlowe is a senior program manager at ACCT. She can be reached at rrushmarlowe@acct.org.

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