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Rural isn’t going away: New initiative launches to help rural-serving community colleges

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Of the 1,000 community colleges in the U.S., studies suggest there are somewhere between 260 and 800 rural community colleges. Those estimates vary based on how rural is defined.

In North Carolina, that number is close to 70% – with 40 of the state’s 58 community colleges serving at least one rural county, according to the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS).

Although challenges on the path to higher education exist in every community, these challenges are often greater in rural areas. To a large extent, these communities are poorer, underserved, and have lower college completion rates than in urban areas.

Many rural-serving community colleges are the primary provider of essential resources. And as community hubs, they experience unique challenges and opportunities as they seek to increase attainment and close the economic prosperity gap.

A new initiative

The Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, in partnership with Achieving the Dream, recently launched an initiative to help rural-serving institutions address the challenges they face and capitalize on opportunities. The Rural College Leaders Program (RCLP) is an immersive learning community with 10 North Carolina community colleges that serve at least one rural county.

Dr. Audrey Jaeger speaking at RCLP convening. Courtesy of the Belk Center

RCLP is a three-year program supported by Ascendium Education Group and is designed to close equity gaps and improve student outcomes.

According to a press release, leaders will “collaborate to define measurable goals, leverage evidence-based practices, identify opportunities, and develop action plans addressing strategic priorities.”

“The Rural College Leaders Program was designed with both the unique challenges and unique opportunities of our rural-serving institutions in mind. Through this program, we are eager to improve equitable student success that leads to greater social and economic mobility in our state’s regions.”

Dr. Audrey Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center

The cohort includes the following community colleges: Carteret, Catawba Valley, College of the Albemarle, Davidson-Davie, Isothermal, McDowell Technical, Roanoke-Chowan, Stanly, Vance-Granville, and Western Piedmont.

As a capacity-building program, presidents at each of the 10 colleges will engage in data analysis that will help them evaluate and make changes. They will have opportunities to review institutional policies and engage in strategic planning. Additionally, leaders will collaborate on strategies that improve student outcomes and address rural issues impacting their communities. Achieving the Dream coaches will partner with each of the presidents to provide coaching tailored to their institution’s needs.

Dr. Brian Merritt, president of McDowell Tech, said experiences like RCLP will push the college outside their comfort zone and help them move forward.

“Our Vision at MTCC is to ‘Learn & Grow.’ We are a great institution that serves our community well. But our aim over the next three years is to find equitable solutions that will help us better serve individuals, our community, and our institution,” said Merritt.

The group’s first convening took place on Monday, Feb. 28. Participants began laying the foundation for strengthening their institution’s capacity to improve equitable student success.

Two coaches from Achieving the Dream attended along with guest speaker Dr. Greg Hodges, president of Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, Virginia. Hodges shared his experience as a president in a rural region and how Patrick Henry promotes equitable outcomes.

The next RCLP learning event is scheduled for September 2022. Between learning events, participants will gather in regional collaborative groups to continue the work.

View of the Bogue Sound from Carteret Community College. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Why focus on rural community colleges?

Out of 100 counties in North Carolina, 78 are considered rural, according to the N.C. Rural Center.

Students and families in rural areas face unique challenges, including fewer health care options, a lack of jobs that offer family-sustaining wages, unreliable transportation, and inadequate broadband internet.

While nationally, high school graduation rates in rural communities are 4% higher than the national average, students from rural areas are not attending college at the same rate as those in urban and suburban areas.

According to a myFutureNC report, among 16-24 year olds in North Carolina, 301,000 are working but not in school and 129,000 are not in school and not working. The report also indicates there are 1.3 million adults 25-44 who do not have a postsecondary degree or credential. Urban counties account for the highest postsecondary attainment rates, while more rural counties, particularly in the northeast, have lower attainment rates.

And the population in many rural counties is shrinking.

After reviewing the 2020 Census data, Carolina Demography found that over the last 10 years, 51 counties across the state lost population. Most of that decline occurred in rural Eastern North Carolina. Carolina Demography reported that “more counties than expected lost population and the losses were larger than expected.”

For years, researchers have warned of a nationwide demographic cliff in 2025 when high school graduates will peak and then decline until 2037.

How does this impact North Carolina community colleges?

When a county experiences population decline, the community college that serves it typically sees decreased enrollments. This has been the pattern since 2006, according to a December 2021 report from the community college system.

Population declines also impact funding. As rural counties lose residents, their tax bases suffer, which means less money to support their local community colleges.

In many ways, the pandemic sped up enrollment woes. In North Carolina, community college enrollment dropped 11% from fall 2019 to fall 2020. While this past fall saw a small uptick in enrollment, systemwide it has not recovered to pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

According to Dr. Mary Rittling, former president of Davidson-Davie Community College and professor of practice for the Belk Center, college leaders will need to reframe their thinking in order to meet the unique needs of their communities and ensure economic prosperity for students and their families.

Rutherford County, which is served by Isothermal Community College. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Understanding the work ahead

RCLP launched to help rural-serving community colleges in North Carolina close equity gaps, improve student success, and pave the way for greater social and economic mobility.

But there is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing all those things.

It’s a process – one that will require colleges to challenge long-held beliefs, make operational adjustments, eliminate policies that create barriers, and build relationships with external partners.

“We have to rethink how we’re engaging. The way we’ve always done it doesn’t work because the needs of the community have changed. How do we support those individuals who are engaging with us and the community so they can lead better lives? We can only do that when we get to know what those needs are and we’re intentional about addressing their specific needs.” 

Dr. Margaret Annunziata, president of Isothermal

Rittling, who has served as a president in rural environments for much of her career, said there are some things college leaders can’t change, and they’ll need to embrace that reality. But embracing it doesn’t mean leading with a deficit mindset. Leaders will need to think differently and focus on the opportunities that exist, she said.

That includes asking tough questions. Colleges need to consider who they are serving and what their needs are, and they will need to think about those in the community they are not serving, Rittling said.

“For those we are not serving, what are we not doing? Are we not outreaching enough? Are we not aware of what the barriers are?”

Dr. Mary Rittling, former president of Davidson-Davie and professor of practice for the Belk Center

During his presentation, Hodges said his presidential mission at Patrick Henry was one thing and one thing only: to lift students and their families out of poverty. But he was very clear – colleges cannot close equity gaps or lift students and their families out of poverty alone.

“It’s a community project,” he said, highlighting the importance of leveraging external community partnerships.

Rittling agreed, but said colleges may need to also look at partnerships outside their communities, including looking nationally.

Either way, inaction is not an option. Partnerships will be key to moving the needle. And as college leaders engage with external partners, their conversations must be comprehensive – lifting up the most basic needs of the community.

“We have to have conversations about housing in our community, and transportation and childcare, because all of those are equity issues that prohibit some students from applying to careers that could lead to the highly skilled 21st century middle class sustainable jobs,” Hodges said.

“We have to be the voice because we are the conduit from the education to the employment.”

Dr. Greg Hodges, president of Patrick Henry Community College
Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.