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2014 March 3 - 12:00 am

POV: Rural Colleges Bring Message to D.C.

Rural

Drew A. Bennett
Board Chair, Rural Community College Alliance; Chancellor, Missouri State University-West Plains

During my recent trip to Washington D.C., sponsored by the Rural Community College Alliance (RCCA), I was reminded of the critically important work being done by that organization to lift America’s 74 million rural citizens. Joined by presidents, administrators and trustees serving community colleges across rural America, we attended meetings and briefings by various officials and agencies, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Perhaps the most important issue discussed was the recently signed Farm Bill. After several years of work, RCCA’s efforts were successful in partnering with rural leaders on the U.S. House and Senate Agriculture Committees to insert language that specifically addresses rural community colleges by requiring USDA to work with and provide programs for rural community colleges. It is the first time in our nation’s history that institutions other than land-grant colleges have been mentioned by name in a Farm Bill. Our meetings with high level federal officials and their staffs confirmed the diligent work done by the Rural Community College Alliance to raise awareness as to the importance of our nation’s 600 rural community, technical, and tribal colleges as tools for regional rural development and uplift.

This achievement was the result of a long, strenuous effort by the RCCA. A major milestone was achieved two years ago when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between RCCA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This MOU provides for a direct means of communication through RCCA to the nation’s rural colleges regarding programs, loans and grants from the USDA. The MOU also provides that rural colleges receive technical assistance directly from the USDA. Last year’s RCCA trip to Washington, D.C., included meetings with Duncan and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

This year, in addition to meeting the secretaries of education and agriculture, RCCA focused on grant opportunities within the various federal agencies. By attending these meetings, not only do we learn about the issues from policy makers in Washington, we also provide those policy makers our own perspectives and explain the needs of community colleges in rural America.

After all, six in 10 of the nation’s 1,552 community college campuses are rural, and they award over half of all associate degrees earned in our country. There are 140 rural-small, 303 rural-medium and 110 rural-large colleges in the United States enrolling 3.7 million students, and yet national studies conducted by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center show that rural community colleges face greater financial strain than do urban and suburban community colleges. The continued decline in state funding only increases the need for rural colleges to leverage federal funding streams, underscoring the critical importance of the RCCA and its sponsored trips to Washington, D.C.

The high level of interest shown by Vilsack and other national policy makers to more fully leverage federal funding streams and bolster rural development following passage of the Farm Bill, provides, as one rural community college president told me, “renewed energy to do my job!” The RCCA was also in attendance at the arrival ceremony for French President Francois Hollande, when welcomed to the White House by President and Mrs. Obama. Randy Smith, the president of the Rural Community College Alliance, has certainly worked to make this trip a very valuable experience.

Trying to navigate the ins and outs of Washington D.C. on your own can be intimidating and unproductive. Thanks to the RCCA, rural community colleges have an important national voice and a support network. I encourage every community college located in rural America to join the RCCA and send its leaders on future RCCA-sponsored trips to Washington, D.C. I also cordially invite my colleagues to attend RCCA’s 2014 convention, which will be held in Prescott, Ariz., Sept. 24-26 at the Prescott Resort. Details can be found on the organization’s web site at www.ruralccalliance.org.

IT'S YOUR TURN: CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: Do lawmakers appreciate the value of rural community colleges?
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