Defining rural colleges and universities nationally has long been a challenge, experts say. But without a comprehensive definition, these institutions have often been overlooked in research as well as state and federal funding. However, experts point out that these colleges educate and employ millions of Americans, many of whom are people of color and from low-income communities.

“A lot of think tanks and foundations interested in rural communities, as well as those in higher education who want to do research, tend to get stuck on the same hurdle: what counts as rural? ” said Dr. Alisa Hicklin Fryar, professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and chief data officer at a research collaboration called the Alliance for Regional College Research (ARRC).

To remove this roadblock, Fryar’s ARRC team recently launched a interactive map 1,087 colleges and universities that serve rural communities but are not necessarily rural. This national project received funding from Ascendium Education Group, a non-profit educational philanthropy and student loan guarantor organization.

Dr. Andrew Koricich, executive director of the ARRC and associate professor of higher education at Appalachian State University, explained why the map looked at institutions serving rural areas (RSI) rather than institutions located in rural areas.

“Before our work, you could identify institutions located in a rural area, but institutions in this category could change depending on what definition of rural you use,” Koricich said. “Not only is the rural location category really variable, it also ignores institutions that provide rural services but not in a rural location.”

For example, Koricich said that many land-grant universities have had an “urbanization effect” on their communities, as many of these institutions have become very prominent over time. “But no one would argue that the work they do, such as agricultural programs, is not important to rural communities,” he added.

Some colleges located on the outskirts of a suburb may also fall into this category serving rural areas. But many of their students may come from surrounding rural communities. Koricich also noted that their project highlighted how RSIs, contrary to some stereotypes that rural communities mean mostly white populations, are in fact demographically diverse.

About one-third of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are RSIs. Approximately 93% of tribal colleges as well as 94% of institutions with high native enrollment that are not designated tribal colleges are also RSIs.

“These are not institutions that can be painted with a broad brush,” Koricich added. “It really is a story that requires nuance.”

Ascendium Education Group supported a similar project by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that also highlighted these nuances in rural higher education. This reportwhich came out in December 2021, mapped colleges and universities across the country that are in rural areas.

“When thinking about the location of higher education institutions, it’s important to consider that most students stay close to home to attend college,” said Dr Nicholas Hillman, a professor at the School of Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors of the report. “If we start from this point of view, the next question is: ‘Which college is nearby?’ This is the whole motivation of this project.

Like Koricich, Hillman said these projects upended some assumptions about rural communities and colleges.

“I sometimes hear how rural areas are dying, but that’s not really true in all areas,” he said. “There’s a lot of variation in what we call ‘rural’. Some communities thrive. It’s not just catastrophic.

He and Koricich also noted that their backer, Ascendium, viewed the two projects as “salt and pepper shakers,” or parallel ways of unpacking the same issue.

Dr. Erica Lee Orians, executive director of the Michigan Community College Association’s Michigan Center for Student Success, agreed.

“The federal government offers many definitions of rural institutions, but in many ways they have been lumped together as non-urban,” Orians said. “So these two reports do a good job of starting the conversation about what we mean by rural higher education.”

At the Michigan Center for Student Success, Orians works with 28 community colleges across the state. She said these projects can help rural institutions create networks to better meet the special needs of rural students.

Early in the pandemic, for example, Orians recalled that some of the rural colleges it worked with struggled to access broadband. A few have extended their wifi to their campus parking lot. In this way, students could sit in their car to go to class.

“I come from a rural community myself and have been interested in this topic for a long time,” Orians said. “I’m grateful that it’s getting more attention now, especially from a diversity and equity perspective. This is a great opportunity for people to find out more. »

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]