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 otherwise be accessible. Rural community colleges can lessen the impact of education deserts, close attainment gaps, and have the potential to drive economic growth and help sustain vibrant communities.

While the Department of Education estimates that there are 260 rural community colleges in the United States that educate around 670,000 students a year, these figures likely underestimate the total number of rural colleges and students served. The Department of Education’s definition of rural is based on distance from urban centers, which excludes many institutions that serve rural populations.

Rural (remote): “More than 25 miles from an urbanized area and more than 10 miles from an urban cluster.”

The National Center for Education Statistics

At the federal level there are more than fifteen different definitions of rurality. According to the American Community Survey, (which defines rural in a similar manner to the Department of Education), 97% of the United States land area is considered rural, and almost 20% of the nation’s population live in these areas.

While rural institutions offer unique opportunities and value to their communities, they face an uphill battle to do so. Rural community colleges and their students face challenges such as access to high speed broadband, basic services such as hospitals and first responders, and faculty recruitment. These challenges can hinder both the academic success of an institution and its students, as well as the economic success of the greater community. While there is no silver bullet 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 rural community colleges.