The challenges rural colleges face

Rural community colleges have to tackle much more than academic barriers to help students graduate, Ashley Smith writes for Inside Higher Ed.

Rural students face food, transportation, and housing insecurities, say college leaders at the Rural Community College Alliance. Often the struggle for basic necessities keeps students in "survival mode," and pushes academics to the backburner, explains Jared Reed, a doctoral student who studies rural community colleges at Iowa State University.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, the proportion of rural adults with some college or no degree has jumped from 20% in 2000 to 22% in 2015.

And for rural communities, lower education attainment rates correspond to higher poverty rates, Smith explains. In low-education counties, where more than one-fifth of adults don't have a high school diploma, the average poverty rate is 8% higher than in other rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Help low-income students finish in four years

But as state funding decreases, many rural community colleges are left to tackle student pain points that span multiple counties, Smith notes. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to these non-academic barriers, so colleges are taking innovative approaches to address the problems.

For example, Davidson County Community College (DCCC) partnered with Single Stop, a nonprofit that connects students to housing assistance, food benefits, and financial counseling, she writes.

To leave learners more time to get to class, DCCC is pushing course start times back to 8:30 AM, says Stacy Waters-Bailey, the institution's Single Stop director. For students with their own vehicles, Davidson partnered with a local car maintenance agency to help with repairs, Smith writes.

To combat housing insecurity, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College negotiated an extended stay rate at a local hotel for students, says Matt McGraw, the associate vice president of institutional effectives and academics services.

And if students struggle with homelessness, Dabney turns to its emergency shelter partners to find students a safe place to stay near campus, McGraw notes.

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In addition to housing and transportation insecurities, many rural students also lack internet access, Smith writes. At Riverland Community College, students can be stuck on campus until 10:00 p.m. trying to complete work online, says Sheryl Barton, an office technology instructor.

Often, the local college is the only place in the area with high-speed internet, and many students don't have the resources to get internet installed at home, she explains.

Rural community colleges serve students from every socioeconomic class, but it's important to remember that a learner's welfare or Medicaid status doesn't detract from their potential to be a star student, Reed says (Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 10/9).

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