Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
The question of what is rural isn’t merely esoteric. Its definition — or rather, the lack of one in policy, especially at the federal level — has deep ramifications for who gets to college, who graduates, and how easy it is to access key services.
Now, researchers are offering some answers.
The Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC) recently released the results of a year-long effort to build an “RSI score,” the first metric to identify rural-serving institutions. The ARRC also published this interactive RSI Data Tool for sorting schools by RSI score and other factors.
The RSI score considers five factors: population size of home county, the percentage of their home county and adjacent counties that are defined as rural by Census data, their proximity to a metro area, and the percent of each college’s program awards spent in the areas of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Parks & Recreation services.
- There are 1,087 RSIs: That number includes 46% of all public, four-year institutions and more than half of all public two-year colleges.
- Many are diverse: Roughly one-third of HBCUs qualified as RSIs, as did 18% of High Hispanic-enrolling institutions and 93% of Tribal Colleges.
- Most are economically challenged: More than two-thirds of postsecondary institutions in counties with low-employment and persistent poverty are RSIs.
- They rely more on state funding: RSIs tend to receive a greater share of their revenues from state appropriations compared to other public institutions, and have higher endowments per student.
These takeaways are useful on their own. But the real value of efforts to define rurality will be to finally give lawmakers a compass for directing rural investment — Appalachian State professor Andrew Koricich, executive director of the ARRC, says it has already led to a meeting with an education aide to one U.S. Senator.
“Part of the power of this is that we’ve done the hard work of conceptualizing and identifying these institutions,” Koricich says, which federal and state governments, as well as nonprofits, can then use to direct funding.
Defining rural is a tricky process. But models like this, which consider multiple factors, allow us to assess schools through different lenses of rurality — the inclusion of ag funding as a factor expands rural-serving definitions, for example.
The ARRC study worked to expand the national understanding of rural-serving past just campuses in rural locations. And it follows a complementary December report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which went more granular while mapping where rural college courses are offered, including surprising locations such as military bases and hotel conference rooms.
The studies are “like salt and pepper shakers: You use different ones for different reasons,” Koricich says — the first helps define institutions, while the second helps dig deeper into how education is actually delivered in rural areas.
More Rural Higher Ed News
From 9 Nations to 55. In 2020, the majority of Tohono O’odham Community College students attended class at its remote campus on the edge of the Sonoran Desert along the Arizona-Mexico border. But while many rural colleges lost students, it has nearly doubled enrollment, with 927 students from 55 tribal nations, thanks in part to offering free classes supported by federal aid received during the pandemic.
Milking It? Lactation experts recently appeared in an Atlanta suburbs court to fight a Georgia law that required practitioners, many of whom are women of color with decades of experience, to take two years of college courses and 300 hours of supervised clinical work before educating others about breastfeeding.
- Why it Matters: Lawmakers say extra education is necessary to help improve health outcomes in Georgia, which has the sixth-highest infant mortality rate in the nation — but experts argue such prohibitive measures only serve to limit access to needed medical care, particularly in rural areas with more limited resources.
Child Care Needed. The Hechinger Report published a look at child care deserts and how filling them could be a boon for rural working parents, reporting from Troy, Vermont, a town of less than 2,000 residents along the Canadian border.
Whichever methods you use to further define it, it’s clear the discourse around rural is finally getting some long needed zest.
Defining the Landscape
The ARRC’s RSI Data Tool offers a ton of potential for researchers and lawmakers looking to more easily identify institutions in need of investment.
For instance, experts looking to identify colleges that serve the poorest students in the country could use the slider to only include those with 75% or more of students receiving Pell Grants.
That search instantly shows that a large portion — about 40% — of these institutions are located in a single Deep South stretch from Georgia to Louisiana.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison report paints a different sort of picture — one focused on where education is offered in rural communities.
The researchers found that corrections and medical facilities, military bases, community agencies such as fire stations, and even private companies and hotels were listed as education sites for colleges.
These unconventional sites, spanning about 16,000 listed as “additional locations” across the country, accounted for about 42% of all education spots in rural areas — compared with 37% in non-rural areas.
The data about the unconventional settings — such as the conference room at the local AmericInn, or even workplaces like Walmart or McDonalds — is limited.
“We have no idea how many students participate in these programs,” says Nicholas Hillman, author of the Wisconsin study. And in some cases, those offerings might not even be active anymore.
Still, the presence of such programs could suggest a number of things.
Even More Rural Higher Ed News
Breaking the Digital Divide. Oklahoma State University and AARP Oklahoma are leading a fascinating project in five rural libraries, connecting residents with digital navigators to help them with everything from using smartphones to posting homemade crafts to Facebook marketplace.
Climate Change. A group of researchers found that current methods of teaching about climate change in rural areas, focusing on the depth and conclusiveness of scientific evidence, may not be effective — instead urging a shift to addressing rural students’ identities, politics, culture, and economies.
No ‘Maus’! After her East Tennessee school board decided to ban the nonfiction Holocaust graphic novel Maus, Whitney Kimball Coe faced a situation many rural folks are familiar with after being asked to speak on national television — how to tread the difficult line of denouncing the bad behavior of local leadership while avoiding furthering stereotypes about the community she loves.
On the positive end: perhaps these services lead to an education system that better brings courses directly to the places where rural students already go.
Or, the negative: such unconventional locations could be conducted by companies looking to get access to federal student aid through Pell Grants, without conferring degrees that are actually helpful to students.
Further research needs to be done to determine the strengths and weaknesses of rural education as it currently exists.
Regardless, both the ARRC and the UW-Madison studies do important work defining the modern landscape — the first, necessary, step for other insights to come.
This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.