What is a rural college? And where to find such institutions? The questions seem simple, but in higher education the answers are surprisingly complex. Now, two new reports aim to clarify them.

The first, published in December, comes from the University of Wisconsin and is titled “Mapping Rural Colleges and Their Communities.” Nicholas Hillman, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin who led the report, says the research grew out of the question, “Where are rural colleges located?” »

Hillman and his team combed through the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System as well as the Accredited Post-Secondary Institutions and Programs Database to understand where the colleges are located, then integrated their addresses into a dataset and mapped these colleges. They have established programs in remote corners of the United States as well as educational partnerships serving students in unexpected places, such as hotels and conference centers.

“There are places where education is happening all over the country that we wouldn’t know if we just relied on IPEDS,” Hillman explained. This is why they have associated it with the DAPIP, which contains details of accredited post-secondary institutions and programs.

The second study, released Monday, comes from the Alliance for Regional College Research and is also a mapping project. However, the ARRC effort focuses on identifying and mapping institutions that serve rural areas rather than colleges located in rural areas, taking into account colleges that may be in cities or towns. well-populated suburbs that have a strong regional appeal.

“Serving goes beyond where you are,” said Andrew Koricich, professor of education at Appalachian State University and executive director of the ARRC. “The way we approached it was not a strict definition where you have to meet such and such criteria, but rather, to find this metric that is relative so that we compare institutions to each other.”

Both studies were funded by Ascendium Education Group. Although it may seem like the mapping projects overlap, the researchers say they are complementary, like salt and pepper.

Rural colleges by location

Hillman and his team analyzed county-level data to create clusters of commuting zones. Instead of 3,142 U.S. counties, there are 625 commuting zones, which the report says “can be a useful measure of local labor markets. They can also serve as a useful geographic measure to determine which colleges are nearby or at least within typical commuting distance.

“The idea that people go to college close to home is captured by this commuting zone concept,” Hillman explained.

Hillman’s team identified and mapped colleges in rural areas, including additional educational programs that provide insight into how and where higher education is delivered. For example, users can search for rural community colleges, four-year universities, and trade schools, or they can locate programs offered at prisons, military bases, community organizations, hotels, and more.

“It’s trainings and programs for a lot of different places that are happening in these places that are really exciting to think about,” Hillman said. “Programs that meet students where they are.”

Another finding that emerges from the data is that enrollment in institutions located in rural areas is declining, a trend that varies by sector. Notably, rural community colleges are experiencing some growth, although this growth is not coming from the public sector, but from private non-profit and for-profit colleges. While rural community colleges saw an overall enrollment increase of 4.8% between fall 2019 and fall 2020, Hillman’s research shows public community college enrollment fell 9.9%, private non-profit organizations recorded an increase of 1.4% and for-profit organizations increased by 22.8%.

Rural colleges that offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees declined by 3.9% and doctoral institutions declined by 2.6% overall. Broken down by sector, public rural colleges that offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees saw a 3.7% drop in enrollment, compared to a 3% drop for their private, nonprofit counterparts and a 4.9% drop. % for for-profit comparative institutions. Enrollment in rural public doctoral institutions fell 3.3%, compared to 1.8% for private nonprofits, while for-profit institutions saw no change, according to Hillman’s analysis. .

“Even in rural areas, I think there are discrepancies,” Hillman said.

Identification of colleges serving rural areas

After a year of development, the ARRC report listed 1,087 institutions serving rural areas. Identifying these colleges, according to the researchers, will lead to a better understanding of higher education in rural areas. Among the factors considered by the ARRC are the percentage of a college’s home county population that is considered rural, proximity to metropolitan areas, and the percentage of degrees conferred in agriculture, natural resources, and parks and recreation – important degrees for rural areas.

“If we don’t have a way to identify [rural-serving institutions] inclusively, we’ll never know how to do better, we’ll never be able to say to what extent they may or may not be underfunded, we may not be able to tell to what extent which certain policies at the state level have a disproportionate impact on these institutions,” Koricich said.

The ARRC’s mapping project also breaks down the rural constituencies served by these colleges and dispels some myths about these populations, Koricich said. For example, about one-third of historically black colleges and universities are rural institutions, as are 18% of high Hispanic enrollment institutions, 93% of tribal colleges, and 94% of high Indigenous enrollment institutions that are non-tribal. colleges.

“The rural is not a proxy for the white; there is a lot of diversity in rural areas,” Koricich said.

He adds that institutions serving rural areas are often in areas facing socioeconomic distress — places with high poverty, low employment rates, and population loss as Americans migrate out of the country. rural areas.

“I think that really highlights that these institutions are important drivers for economic opportunity, for access to education, and also for lifting diverse populations out of poverty,” Koricich said.

Challenges for rural colleges

As executive director of the Michigan Community College Association’s Michigan Center for Student Success, Erica Orians works with 28 public community colleges across the state.

“Despite the fact that they may be small institutions, or serve smaller numbers of students, this does not necessarily diminish their importance in their local communities,” Orians said. “Community colleges are generally very focused on preparing for the future workforce and economic development issues in their region, in addition to the role they play in getting students on the right track to transfer to an institution. delivering a bachelor’s degree. But declining enrollment is really forcing institutions to think about their role in local economic development.

Beyond enrollment, a 2021 report from the Association of Community College Trustees found other challenges extending to funding disparities at the local, state, and federal levels; limited high-speed Internet access; and limited resources for basic student needs and mental health.

These challenges also extend to colleges in rural areas, experts say. Researchers now hope these new reports can reach lawmakers to serve as a resource on rural colleges and help inform public policy.

“This report helps to show that the [education] market varies greatly, depending on where you live,” Hillman said. “I hope that’s something this report can help researchers focus more on: that these local contexts vary greatly across the country.

The ARRC hopes its new mapping tool will be used by philanthropic organizations, researchers, journalists and politicians to help guide funding, policy development and reporting on rural issues.

“There are so many potential applications for this work,” Alisa Fryar, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma and ARRC researcher, said over email. “For the philanthropic community, we hope this work will better support their efforts to identify institutions for targeted investments. For the research community, we hope that the data work and related discussions will accelerate the next stage of their research on rural higher education. For policy makers, this work can be used to better understand the rural higher education landscape more broadly and draw attention to the diversity within rural higher education. Most importantly, we hope it will support more conversations, more research, and more critical thinking about rural higher education.