The Mixed Methods Blog
Understanding the Strengths and Challenges Facing Rural Community Colleges
Rural community colleges support their students and sustain their larger communities in many ways. They have built relationships with local businesses that enable them to support their students as they transition into the workforce. They are also a pathway for people of all ages and backgrounds to enter new careers, expand their skills, and engage with their communities.
And yet, little research has been done to explore rural community colleges' strengths and challenges. To help to close this gap, this past summer, the CCRC guided pathways team began work on a research agenda around rural community colleges. This work is based on discussions at CCRC’s summer institute on guided pathways and a literature review describing issues facing rural community college and rural students.
As an intern on the guided pathways team during the summer institute, I observed the college teams discuss their goals, challenges, opportunities, and plans for reimagining the student experience at their institutions. I gained insights into rural community colleges and how some perceived barriers to reform may actually be opportunities.
Some of my favorite moments from the institute included seeing colleges "think wildly" and refocus on their goals and the opportunities before them, rather than the limitations they face. Additionally, the teams were highly aware throughout the week that they were there for students. As a college student myself, seeing the community college staff, faculty, and leaders prioritize the student experience made me feel more connected to my own college. It was a reminder that, though students rarely see how decisions are made, the leaders of my own college are likely having similar conversations about how to prioritize equity and ensure that all of their students are supported.
It was also meaningful to see how much these rural community college educators and staff value their communities and the extent to which community colleges act as community centers. I grew up in rural Montana and attended college in New York City, and I have found that the setting for everything discussed in my courses is urban. Exploring the city and its history makes sense for much of my coursework, but I cannot help but wonder how rural communities compare to such an urban one. Despite their large geographic areas and low population densities, rural communities are as deeply intertwined and engaging as neighborhoods in the city are.
During conversations that took place during the institute's activities, many of the colleges focused on building and maintaining relationships with local businesses, other schools, and alumni. They aimed to take an active role in their communities not only for the sake of the institution but also to support their students as they transition into the local workforce and larger community.
What We Learned About Rural Colleges
By observing conversations among the rural community college teams, we were able to gain insight into many facets of life at rural community colleges that are not well covered in the current literature. Some of our key takeaways are:
- Staff often have many roles and responsibilities beyond their official titles and job descriptions, making it hard to take on, complete, and reflect on new initiatives.
- It is challenging but necessary to build and maintain connections with the local community and workforce.
- Different populations (i.e., the large population of older students and the increasing numbers of Latinx students) need different things, but it is difficult to balance those needs. A major challenge for the colleges is making decisions that effectively serve these groups and address barriers they face in achieving their goals.
- There are many opportunities to better serve rural students, but deciding what is most urgent, choosing what to do first, and balancing so many needs takes careful thought and planning.
How Challenges Can Become Advantages
I also spent time thinking about how these colleges' circumstances could be reframed. Many facets of rural community colleges that are viewed as barriers to be overcome are seen as benefits at elite universities. Small class sizes, work and internship opportunities, and large campuses can both benefit students and create challenges for students and community colleges that lack the resources of elite institutions.
Additionally, branch campuses are challenging to manage on many levels, from program planning to resource distribution. Many rural community colleges that attended the summer institutes had several branch campuses located hours apart, with different programs at each location. However, despite their challenges, branch campuses also offer the opportunity to serve more students across a wider geographic area and to connect with more local industries.
Further, while small class sizes in many of these institutions are a sign of declining enrollment, low class sizes are coveted at elite institutions. Just as Barnard College promises its students the opportunity to connect with professors to expand their networks and career opportunities, small classes in rural community colleges have the potential to strengthen networks and community engagement.
Rural community colleges are in a unique position to help people pursue careers that will earn them a living wage. They also act as an anchor and meeting point for many communities. Their ability to welcome and support students in sparsely populated areas is what makes them valuable, yet they remain vulnerable to the large-scale changes and social and economic challenges facing rural America. Going forward, I hope that more people come to recognize the depth and strength of rural communities and their community colleges, and offer them the support that they deserve.