a college building sits in a plaza, with a sign reading "finger lakes community college"
Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) was founded in 1965 and s located just east of Canandaigua, New York (Photo Courtesy of Finger Lakes Community College).

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 lack of density in rural areas is a critical challenge for colleges. It affects not just how students get to class, but whether those classes exist at all, as many courses struggle to reach the minimum enrollment to offset the cost of running them. 

“You have to find students to be able to teach,” says Robert Nye, the president of Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, N.Y. 

While the problem is simple, the answer is anything but. Nye’s students are scattered across various upstate towns, and don’t always have access to a car. Even if they are near a bus route, students who work full-time may not have time to wait for it.

With that challenge, Finger Lakes decided to try something different: Rather than try to get more rural students to campus, the college decided to take their classes to their students through its Growing Rural Infrastructure Together (GRIT) program.

GRIT students are able to take virtual classes at local schools, libraries, and workforce development offices, with a class “coach” visiting each site in-person every few sessions.

“You can create that density, but also create that personal connection,” Nye says.

The hybrid learning model began with three off-site centers in 2017 and has now expanded to six nearby towns, including Bloomfield, Clifton Springs, Geneva, Macedon, Newark, and Penn Yan. 

The program began with an advanced manufacturing course, which wouldn’t seem to lend itself to virtual instruction — except Finger Lakes also gives students Augmented Reality devices to train on, including instructional blowtorches for welding training.

“They don’t have to go to factory A or factory B to practice,” Nye says, and virtual welding also reduces the amount of metal, equipment, and venting the college needs to provide.

“Traditionally, when you have a student doing a particular weld, you don’t know it’s good until it’s done … with virtual welders, it tells you when you’re off, so you can correct yourself in the middle of the weld.” 

Community colleges were hit the hardest during the Covid-19 pandemic, with rural campuses seeing an average of a 9.9-percent decline (urban campuses saw even worse drops, at 10.3 percent). 

But Finger Lakes had a much smaller drop: Its 1.5-percent decline in full-time enrollment in fall 2021, down to 5,145 students, was the lowest among any of the Empire State’s 30 community colleges.

Nye credited the GRIT program as an example of one small way to improve resilience at rural colleges. That hybrid manufacturing class was able to enroll 12 students, many of whom likely wouldn’t have been able to participate in a typical campus program.

An FLCC student learning in one of the school’s many vocational programs (Photo Courtesy of Finger Lakes Community College).

Using augmented reality and distributed classrooms gives Finger Lakes flexibility to rapidly respond to the needs of the various communities it serves. 

The college can add new courses on demand, so long as they have enough interested students and at least a semester’s notice to try to hire the necessary instructors, Nye says.

“The beauty of GRIT is that you don’t have to have eight people in one spot. If Clifton Springs wants a history class, and you can get Bloomfield high school and Macedon library to say they have enough people, we can teach it.”

More Rural Higher Ed News

Will we see equitable AR/VR though? Brookings published a report Tuesday exploring how rural students, as well as Black and Hispanic students, may have greater trouble accessing augmented and virtual reality tech (spoiler alert: every example of higher ed AR/VR adoption in the report was at a college in a major urban environment). 

  • Why It Matters: Funding, faculty skepticism, and faculty interest remain key challenges for rural and other minority-serving institutions. Among the report’s suggestions was bridging the digital divide through federal grants and state partnerships, although that’s often easier said than done, as I reported for Open Campus earlier this year.

Rural Indians head overseas. Rurality, of course, is hardly just an American experience. In India, rural students are increasingly setting their horizons abroad, a phenomenon once only common for middle-class Indians. Almost a million Indian students were heading abroad in early 2022, twice pre-pandemic levels, Reuters reports, and a number of them are families from poorer rural areas.

  • Why It Matters. The overseas education market is estimated to more than double to around $80 billion by 2024, according to a 2021 report from Red Seer consultancy. And while Americans question the value of their degrees, the return on investment for rural Indians “is very, very good,” Piyush Kumar, South Asia head for foreign student placement agency IDP Education, told Reuters.

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.