Investing in Rural Students and Colleges Essential to America's Economic Recovery

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill.

While the bipartisan infrastructure package is likely to include benefits for rural areas, such as funds to improve roads, bridges, and waterways, so far it does not include support for rural colleges, an important avenue for promoting economic mobility and economic development.

In many states, a single rural college is the only postsecondary option for hundreds of miles around. Education gaps between rural communities and their more urbanized counterparts are sizable. In most states, rural high school students achieve graduation rates similar to urban and suburban counterparts, but their college enrollment rates are much lower. While 41 percent of urban adults have a college degree, only 28 percent of rural adults do. And during the pandemic, rural colleges have seen drastic drops in enrollment.

Despite these challenges, rural colleges have been sources of impressive innovation during the past year and a half. Here are three things rural colleges adopted as they adjusted to the pandemic that could be expanded with more federal support. 

Bringing internet services and devices to students

Many rural areas lack adequate broadband internet infrastructure, which has become even more critical during the pandemic. Indeed, the Association of Community College Trustees identified internet access as the number one challenge facing rural students.

During the pandemic many colleges found unique, although short-term, ways to deliver the internet directly to students and families. In Alabama, for instance, internet-equipped school buses left unused when schools shuttered drove out to distant parts of one county to provide access to families. In Alaska, nonprofits shipped touch-screen devices to families in distant communities where tribal halls offered internet access but no devices. Colleges have also helped students and families access home broadband through the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, in which Pell grant receipt is an eligibility criterion to receive funds.

But these piece-meal solutions aren’t sustainable in the long-term and the need for broadband infrastructure is still great. Any broadband funding in the final infrastructure bill should include accessibility to rural colleges, allowing them to serve a greater number of students—and keep them in school, too.  

New programs and ‘work-friendly’ schedules for students

To improve college enrollment rates that decreased over the last year, many rural colleges are trying new strategies to meet students’ needs, including offering alternative evening course schedules to accommodate shift work or weeks off for seasonal agricultural work. Others have begun offering new degree programs for the newly remote tech jobs now in reach for local students.

Some rural colleges have begun adapting the pandemic-induced innovations into new models for teaching in-demand degrees and certificates. Specialized technical programs in high-demand fields that were previously too costly to administer—or that could not be administered given the limited population of local experts—can now be taught in a hybrid model, in which faculty living in cities teach partially in-person and partially remotely.

Rather than needing students to travel to distant cities, the programs can come to them. But this requires infrastructure investment that would allow colleges to purchase the technology and equipment to allow this to occur—costs that most rural colleges cannot currently afford.

Rural colleges as trusted institutions

Rural colleges have taken on new responsibilities in reaction to the public health crisis, repurposing unused space for testing clinics, quarantine zones and, more recently, vaccination sites.

One college near the U.S.-Mexico border repurposed campus space into a federal medical station to treat COVID-19 patients. In the spring, it opened a bilingual COVID vaccine clinic, using students in nursing and EMT programs. More community members were willing to get vaccinated at their trusted community college than in state-run sites.

Rural college leaders have other ideas to help spur on local economic recovery. Some are developing telecommuting hubs to support remote jobs in fields like computer science and information technology, so that students can access high-wage jobs while staying in the community. Others are focused on collaborative credentialing programs to meet local workforce needs in partnership with industry associations for advanced manufacturing and agricultural robotics. Yet all of these undertakings are costly, requiring colleges to invest in multiple semesters of implementation and experimentation before figuring out which programs really work.

Having successfully deployed CARES Act relief funds for emergency aid for students to make it through the worst of the pandemic, rural college leaders are eager to undertake more. Investing in rural students and colleges could help spur economic recovery and generate economic mobility in rural parts of the country. 

Alyssa Ratledge is a research associate in MDRC’s Postsecondary Education Policy Area.