Poverty, low health outcomes and access issues have remained prevalent in rural communities.
Now, however, COVID-19 has further brought those challenges to light.
In an effort to analyze the role of community colleges within rural communities, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) released a new report titled, “Strengthening Rural Community Colleges: Innovations and Opportunities.”
The report, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, calls attention to the experiences of rural community colleges in five states including North Carolina, Texas, California, Kentucky and Iowa. With 32 of 37 main campuses located in rural areas, the research also examined six tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in Montana and North Dakota.
“We may see a lot of these small colleges fold their tents and disappear because of financial and other pressures,” said J. Noah Brown, president and CEO at ACCT. “So, what are people in rural communities going to do at that point? They will have lost really the only postsecondary on-ramp to education that they have.”
Broadband internet, funding and meeting basic needs were among the three main challenges facing rural community colleges.
According to the report, rural Americans are 15 times more likely to lack Wi-Fi compared to those in urban or suburban areas. Additionally, 68% of Americans living on reservations were unable to access broadband.
“These types of disparities persist,” said Brown. “With the wake of the pandemic, when a lot of these institutions had to convert to online, that presented unique challenges because students often didn’t have broadband access or didn’t have Wi-Fi available to them.”
To create temporary solutions, the state of North Carolina implemented Wi-Fi hotspots in 280 school buses that were dispersed throughout underserved communities. Navajo Technical University and Cankdeska Cikana Community College established programs to deliver paper copies of school assignments to students.
Long-term, the report recommended that the Federal Communications Commission redefine broadband as a “telecommunication utility” which would impact pricing and control what type of providers can offer service. Additionally, eliminating state laws that prevent public investment in broadband would increase affordability and access.
Outside of Wi-Fi, rural community colleges have attempted to meet the basic needs of students.
With 210 of its 7,000 students self-identifying as homeless in 2020, Imperial Valley College looked to address housing insecurity. Partnering with the Imperial Valley College Foundation and the City of El Centro, the school established a tiny home project to house up to 26 students. Students living in the tiny homes must conduct ten community service hours to maintain the area each month.
COVID-19 has also increased the need for mental health care.
In 2020, two-thirds of rural adults experienced more mental health challenges than in the previous year. However, despite this, 48% of rural adults believe there is a stigma connected to mental illness, according to the report.
There is also a lack of access to quality health care and mental health support.
For example, 65% of non-metropolitan counties have no psychiatrist and 47% do not have a psychologist. Additionally, 30% of rural community colleges only offered information about mental health resources, the report found.
State and government governments should fund student support services to meet the needs of students. Additionally, existing programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Child Care Access Means Parents in School have to be strengthened and utilized, the research suggested.
Outside of basic needs, rural community colleges have also developed strategies to increase student success including dual-credit programs, after-hours care and industry workforce introductions.
“I think these are all examples that speak to ways that rural community colleges have been innovative and successful,” said Dr. Vanessa Sansone, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “But as this report points out, policy has yet to catch up to noting these successes in the ways that they serve.”
Over the years, however, rural community colleges have faced difficulties in securing funding at the local, state and federal level.
Four-year public institutions receive nearly twice the amount of state funding than community colleges. Though rural institutions earn similar funding compared to those in suburban and urban area, overall costs of service are higher, according to the report.
“All of our policies and the ways that higher education operates is still this very outdated mode of existence and thinking,” said Sansone. “This is why rural community colleges are constantly overlooked. They are doing more with less.”
Despite over 400 federal grant and loan programs being open and available to rural community colleges, the varying definition of “rurality” has made that funding available to many institutions. The report suggested devising one single unified definition of “rural” across all federal agencies.
Brown emphasized that the work is far from finished.
“All we have done at this point is expose a lot of the challenges and issues…,” he said. “We really just skimmed the surface in the report on some of the strategies that institutions might use. But there’s so much more we can uncover and learn and then give back to our boards and presidents in terms of things they could actually do systemically to address those challenges.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.