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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 March 8 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: The Unseen Sector

                           C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y                             

The Unseen Sector
The unseen Sector Rural Community Colleges Vie for Visibility, Respect from Policymakers


It was a decade ago that a policy paper published at the conclusion of the Ford Foundation’s Rural Community College Initiative starkly outlined the dilemma facing the nation’s rural community colleges.


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“In today’s fiscal climate, community colleges around the country are caught between a rock and a hard place,” the paper said. “States are reducing (or at best holding steady) college finding while enrollment is rising rapidly —a function of laid-off workers seeking retraining and young people who in better times might attend a university. Colleges are hard-pressed to provide core instructional services to the students knocking on their doors, let alone tackle the broader rural development agenda advocated by this paper. Yet is exactly this agenda — a commitment to economic development, workforce training, educational training and technology — that can help state economies rebound from the current downturn and build long-term prosperity.”

Although those words are ten years old, they resonate today for leaders of rural colleges, who still struggle to provide education and build the economies of the vast geographical regions that they serve.

Now, a movement to raise the profile of a sector of higher education that often seems invisible to state and federal policy makers is gaining momentum. Members of the Rural Community College Alliance — which grew out of the Ford Foundation’s RCCI — recently traveled to Washington to meet with Department of Education officials and members of the Rural Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“One of our biggest jobs is to let policy makers know who we are,” said Randy Smith, president of the alliance. “Rural colleges tend to be overlooked. We don’t exist in big media markets. We’re dealing with double-digit enrollment increases. All community colleges have that, but rural colleges don’t have the resources that urban colleges do to make up the difference.”

“The rural colleges do a tremendous amount of work across America. They are the unsung heroes of rural America. We would not have workforce development programs in rural regions without them. We wouldn’t have so many first-generation college students going to school.”

More than Education

The alliance currently counts 156 colleges in 44 states and is an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges. Most of the rural institutions are located in the south and west. They
are, in many cases, much more than educational institutions; they also serve as the economic, cultural, athletic and social centers of their regions.

“There is no theater in town,” said Felicia Casados, executive officer of the New Mexico State University Grants Campus, located in a remote part of western New Mexico. “People come to us. There is no convention center. We are the convention center. The public library is closed on Mondays. People come to us.”

And while rural institutions have much in common with their larger, urban brethren, they are also very different.

“It’s like the difference between New York City and rural Oklahoma,” said Frank Chong, DOE’s deputy assistant secretary for community colleges, who met with the rural college group in Washington.

Most of the colleges are small, and don’t have the economies of scale of larger colleges. Most depend on local funds but are located in communities with a low tax base and an equally low ability to pay for community colleges. Many rural institutions serve large, sparsely populated areas, increasing the difficulty of delivering services. Central Arizona College, for example, is located in a county spread over 5,200 square miles — approximately the size of the state of Connecticut and greater than the combined square mileage of the states of Rhode Island and Delaware.

Many of the colleges also are located in impoverished areas. Rural regions with economies based on manufacturing or natural resources are rapidly shedding jobs. In a time when economic prosperity depends on a highly-skilled workforce, rural communities are held back by low educational attainment and poor access to telecommunications.

“All community colleges are hurting these days, but rural community colleges are hurting the most,” said Steven G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama and a leading community college researcher.

Barriers for Students

Students enrolled in rural community colleges face barriers, too. Rural community colleges enroll large numbers of low-income students, who are disproportionately affected by tuition increases. Federal student aid has lagged behind rising educational costs, particularly for part-time students and those reluctant to take out student loans. Nearly 60 percent of community college students who incurred debt in 2007 were enrolled at rural institutions, Katsinas said.

Rural community college students face expenses that are not covered by federal aid formulas, including transportation. Few rural areas have public transportation systems, and even those students who own a car face long travel times that can make college attendance out of reach. Many students come from areas with historically low levels of educational attainment and lack the education ethic critical to student success.

That the rural sector of community colleges is burdened with such a low profile is puzzling to some. Statistically, they are a leading provider of higher education. Katsinas said there are 553 rural community college districts across the country, or 64 percent of all community college districts. They enroll more than 3 million students. Between 2000-01 and 2005-06, enrollment jumped by 1 million students, illustrating the demand for education in rural America.

In addition to handling skyrocketing enrollments, rural community colleges are acting as economic catalysts for their service areas. Central Arizona College, for example, secured a Community Based Job Training Grant in 2006 with an eye toward filling a growing need in Arizona — an education program geared around radiologic technology.

Four years ago, the program had no facility, curriculum or personnel. Today, it has a state state-of-the-art lab, full-time personnel, and a curriculum that had the distinction of being accredited last fall before its first cohort had graduated. Of the 16 students that have taken the national exam for radiography, all passed.

Colleges also are taking steps to maximize their resources. Somerset Community College in Kentucky, for example, recently took steps to upgrade its heating, air conditioning, lighting and water systems. The measures are expected to save about $250,000 a year; the upgrades are anticipated to pay for themselves in lower utility bills for the college over time.

“The best part of this contract is, that after 14 years, all of the money we save on utility bills will go toward educating students,” said Jo Marshall, president and CEO of SCC.

Still, the economic downturn has taken a painful toll on rural community colleges. Central Arizona College — recognized officially as the Pinal County Community College District — is typical. It recently learned that the countywide assessed value for taxable property has declined by 13.1 percent for the 2010-11 budget year. The college expects to lose $4.5 million from the county, on top of a $14.9 million reduction in funding for fiscal year 2009.

North Iowa Area Community College is also caught between steadily increasing enrollments with significantly decreasing state funding. From fall 2005 to fall 2009, enrollment at NIACC has grown by 22 percent, from 3,052 students to 3,729. But from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2010, general state aid dipped by more than 20 percent.

Recruiting a Problem

Rural colleges also face difficulties in recruiting and retaining faculty. Faculty at rural community colleges earn an average of $46,535 a year; that’s $13,435 a year
less than what professors at suburban community colleges earn. Attracting faculty — particularly adjuncts — is also a problem at colleges located in areas with few amenities; the nearest shopping mall might be an hour’s drive away.

“We do suffer from a lack of a pool of people who can teach as adjuncts,” said
Phil Sutphin, president of East Central Community College in Mississippi. “There just aren’t that many people around here with a master’s in chemistry that can teach.”

That reality, and the remote locations of rural colleges, has placed a premium on distance education, and many rural colleges have robust distance learning programs. But while the colleges themselves largely have up-to-date technical capabilities, that is not true of their service areas. Many homes in rural America have only dial-up access to the Internet. To partake in distance education, students must use college computer labs or travel to libraries with high-speed Internet access.

Rural colleges also contend they are at a distinct disadvantage when competing for federal grant money. Most schools simply can’t afford grant writers, instead assigning the task to faculty members or administrators or training staff on the fly.

“You really need experienced people as grant writers,” Sutphin said. “I am trying to grow one. It becomes on-the-job training. But it’s difficult. If I had a true grant writer, it would give us an opportunity to compete. When you have to compete against Miami Dade and some of the other large colleges, you really don’t have a chance.”

Smith said the alliance wants DOE to
set aside a percentage of grant money for smaller, rural colleges, giving them access to resources that are now out of reach.

“Our colleges have professors who are writing grants and carry a full academic load,” he said. “We just don’t have the resources to seek federal grants.”

Katsinas outlined some other immediate steps DOE could take to help rural colleges, including:

Creation of a small research grant program that would increase the number of scholars studying rural community colleges.

Restoration of the Education Resources Information Center clearinghouse for community colleges, which was scrapped under the Bush Administration.

More aggressive outreach by DOE staff, including visits to rural campuses.

College leaders are heartened by President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, which proposes to deliver $12 billion to improve community colleges nationwide, mostly through a competitive grant process.

“I think we have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to elevate community colleges to a new level,” Chong said. “We want to make them the linchpin of American Education reform. We are trying to build a program that will be sensitive to your needs.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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