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V4I1: Rural Communities and Access to Education

By: Selena M. Grace, PhD, NWCCU Senior Vice President

We consistently talk about the value proposition of a postsecondary education. We know the financial return on investment is sound, we know the time return on investment is sound, and that postsecondary education creates healthier and more democratic societies. We are more consistently evaluating participation and completion rates by race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status and using those data to identify better ways to support student success. We talk a lot about academic preparation and financial barriers. And, related to these things we talk a lot about access.

However, one area of research related to access that continues to be under- evaluated is how rural communities are impacted by lack of educational opportunities. As a rural westerner, having come from many generations of rural westerners, I know how much community, family, and ties to place impact decisions we make about our lives and our futures. And yet, throughout my educational journey I have also sometimes forgotten how significant that lack of access to postsecondary educational opportunities can be for our rural communities. This summer, as I drove through my home state of Idaho and through Montana to Glacier National Park, I was reminded of the rural magnitude in the Pacific Northwest. In the days that we drove across both states, there were many hundreds of miles of farms, open lands, and rugged mountains without a single structure or living creature to be seen. Scattered sporadically in between were many small communities. They were beautiful and humbling. I wondered about the educational and work options for members of each of those communities. And, what jobs were available – did obtaining an education mean leaving and never coming back? How had COVID-19 and remote work and remote education helped and hurt these communities?

As I have continued to learn more about and support NWCCU’s member institutions, I am also continually reminded that we serve diverse landscapes and demographic regions. Many of our institutions support regions that cover hundreds of square miles of high deserts, farmlands, and mountainous and rugged landscapes. Our member institutions are located in states and provinces that range from more than 66,000 square miles to more than 570,000 square miles.

Chart 1: Land area in square miles

The magnitude of this vast geography is demonstrated when you look at the populations in these regions by square miles. In half of the regions where our member institutions are located (AK, MT, ID, BC) there are 19 or less people per square mile, with Alaska at only 1.2 people per square mile. The next increase (NV, OR, UT) only has 25-40 people per square mile, and with the largest the state of Washington with 101 people per square mile. These are significant contrasts from what you would see in eastern states like Massachusetts with a total land base of 7,800 square miles and nearly 840 people per square mile, and many more educational opportunities.

Chart 2: Population per square mile

*4.8 square kilometers converted to square miles

What this often means is that many of our communities, particularly the rural ones, are located in education deserts. Research from Nicholas Hillman and Taylor Weichman (2016), supported by the American Council on Education, highlighted the significance of education deserts. These are locations where zero colleges or universities are located nearby, or where a single community college is the only public broad-access institution nearby. They noted that for purposes of their research a broad-access institution was one that admitted more than 75% of its applicants, and their research revealed that community colleges often enroll the majority of students in education deserts. Their research looked at micropolitan areas (communities with populations between 10,000-50,000), metropolitan (communities with populations of 50,000 or more), and commuting zones. Their data revealed that in micropolitan deserts 79% of students were supported by community colleges, with 12% being supported by public four-year institutions, 8% by non-profit, and 1% by for-profit institutions. In metropolitan deserts, community colleges still supported more than 52% of students, with public four-year institutions supporting 32%, non-profit 12%, and for-profit 4% (numbers in commuting zone deserts were similar to metropolitan deserts).

Absent from their research, and the reality of what many of our member institutions work to address, were those communities with populations less than 10,000 people. Those communities that truly are educational deserts. These are not geographically or racially homogenous communities. The diversity of their landscape comes with unique challenges, and the distinctness of the cultural and racial diversity (white, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, Alaskan Native, First Nations) requires additional resources and support. These elements become even more important when we start looking at student choice for postsecondary education. The 2019 Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey reported that 49% of students attending public four-year colleges attended colleges that were 50 miles or less from their homes (36% for private four-year colleges), nearly half of students captured are remaining close to home. Not only are students living in educational deserts, but those who are looking at college are still choosing educational opportunities that are closer to home.

When we look at the highest level of educational attainment by state and province. In our service region, for 20-30% a high school diploma is the highest level of education and for 15-21% the highest level is a bachelor’s degree. Significant portions of our communities are undereducated to meet the growing workforce demands.

Table 1: Highest level of educational attainment by state/province

* Canadian Census data for postsecondary education are disaggregated differently than U.S. Census data (Apprenticeships trades or certificates or diploma made up 9%; College CEGEP or other non-university certificate or diploma made up 21%; University certificate or diploma below a bachelor level made up 4%; and University certificate, diploma or degree at a bachelor level or above made up 30%)

Research by Carnevale, Strohl, Ridley and Gulish (2018) supported by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce identified three pathways to good jobs. The first, the high school pathway, will only account for 20% of good jobs; the second, the middle-skills pathway, will account for only another 24% of good jobs; and the third, the bachelor’s pathway, will account for 56% of good jobs. These are jobs that lead to living wages. We are living in the perfect storm, and to complicate these challenges more the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging and taxing our communities and educational systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic required a rapid pivot to virtual living, learning, and working. We have seen many great advances in how we teach online, how we work online, and how we socialize online. There has been a growth in access to technology with federal stimulus funding, and in some areas even expansions in broadband capability. We have also seen isolation; students struggling to learn virtually; families struggling to work, learn, support children and ailing family members; and continued limitations for broadband access in remote and rural communities.

What innovations, what lessons have we learned to better support those in education deserts, those wanting to remain in their rural communities and build their lives and support their families? How can higher education do business differently after the many lessons from the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic? There is more research to be done, and much to share about the innovations and growth in how our member institutions are better supporting their rural communities. Please contact Senior Vice President Selena M. Grace if you would like to share more about how your institutions is innovating and supporting rural communities and their access to education.



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