41 million rural Americans live in a higher ed desert

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, senior staff writer

In October, Washington Monthly and New America convened a panel of higher ed administrators and policy experts to discuss how institutions can better support underserved students.

According to the panelists, rural students living in higher ed deserts are one group that often gets overlooked by college and universities.

Nearly 20% of American adults—as many as 41 million people—live in a higher ed desert, according to the Urban Institute. And three million of these Americans also lack access to broadband internet.

These barriers cut prospective students "off from any education opportunity, electronic or physical," says panelist Anne Kim, a senior fellow and director of domestic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute. Higher ed deserts harm both the individuals who live in the region and the economic strength of the community, she adds.

Proximity to a college or university can become the "deciding factor in whether a student pursues a degree, or... finishes one," Kim wrote in an article for the Washington Monthly. For students who have family care responsibilities or full-time jobs, a long commute to campus may be impossible to fit into their schedule.

"It's not practical, it's too expensive to establish a university in every place in the country that doesn't have one right now," says Kim.

But several states have found a way to reach rural students where they are by establishing centers that provide physical infrastructure for existing colleges and universities to offer online and in-person instruction.

For example, the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC), which was established in 2014, operates six hubs scattered throughout rural northern Pennsylvania. The NPRC borrows classroom space from local high schools, public libraries, and other community buildings.

While NPRC doesn't award its own degrees, it provides the infrastructure for other colleges and universities to "extend their reach" through virtual and in-person teaching, says Kim.

NPRC provides students who don't have internet access a way to get online and an in-person class structure that helps students stay on track, says panelist Joseph Nairn, the president of NPRC. "The model of having students come to a site and interact with teachers and students leads to better outcomes," he says. "We are imposing discipline without requiring people to commute some ungodly distance or requiring people to pack up and move to a residential setting."

Related: What colleges get wrong about recruiting rural students

Higher ed centers provide "opportunities for young people and adults in the region who would have not had them in the first place," says Nairn. He points to Tesla Rae Moore, one of the first NPRC graduates, as an example.

Moore earned her associate degree in business administration from Gannon University through NPRC. As an NPRC student, Moore drove to her local high school four nights a week to join classes at Gannon via videoconference.

"We could see each other and talk to each other and had a real-time professor," says Moore. By avoiding the two-hour commute to Gannon, Moore was able to continue taking care of her two young children and work full-time.

Moore says the combination of physical and online learning "offers so much more than online school does, especially for somebody that’s been out of school. I had a time that I had to be in front of my professor, and I had a time when I had to go in for my test. It was a lot more structured, like traditional education."

Virginia and Maryland have also launched higher ed centers to serve rural students. Like NPRC, these centers partner with higher ed institutions to offer courses and occupational training, writes Kim.

The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), for example, occupies two renovated tobacco warehouses in rural South Boston, Virginia. SVHEC partners with Longwood University and Danville Community College to offer classes and training in welding, IT, and nursing. SVHEC works closely to with local employers to understand workforce needs and prepare students with in-demand skills, writes Kim.

"We can be more innovative than a traditional institution of higher education, which means we can respond more quickly," says Betty Adams, the executive director of SVHEC. "We’ve had industries come to us and say, 'We can’t find the trained workers we need. We need you to help us.'" Last year, SVHEC placed 173 students into new jobs, says Adams.

"We get people in here who’ve never had success before, but they get a credential and it helps them get a job or a better job and then they start thinking, 'Wow, I want to come back and get another credential,' and it builds on itself. That’s educational empowerment," says Adams.

Higher ed centers aren't a panacea for rural students, writes Kim. They offer a limited array of courses, have fewer support services for students, and don't substitute the comprehensive offerings for a full-fledged college, she notes.

But "there’s a lot of pent-up demand for this kind of education," says Nairn. "We’re not going to build a gym or a swimming pool. But if you want to get a good education and continue to work your job or stay in your community or take care of your kids, we can provide you with that opportunity. We represent the kind of radical innovation that higher education needs right now" (Kim, Washington Monthly, September/October 2018).

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