- A new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy outlines three strategies rural communities are using to increase the college-going rates of their population.
- Understanding local barriers to attending college, using innovative means to recruit and serve students, and forming partnerships between schools and the workforce are all critical to boosting completion rates, the researchers found.
- The report comes as workforce development has become a growing need in rural regions, which often have few college options and low levels of credential attainment.
The researchers zeroed in on four rural communities working to increase degree attainment: Shasta County, in Northern California; Texas' Rio Grande Valley region; Elkhart County, in northern Indiana; and Columbus, in southeast Indiana.
The Lumina Foundation has designated all four regions as Talent Hubs, which receive grants from the organization to support local efforts to increase degree attainment among college-aged, stopped-out and adult students.
Each area has faced unique challenges in achieving their goals. For example, Shasta County has only two community colleges and no four-year universities, contributing to the low attainment and high college dropout rate in the region, according to the report.
To remedy those issues, Shasta College launched its Accelerated College Education (ACE) program, which allows students to complete an associate degree faster, in the evenings and online. So far, the program has proven successful, with participants persisting and completing their degrees at higher rates than other Shasta students.
More recently, the college launched another program, called Bachelors through Online and Local Degrees. It allows students to enroll in an online four-year degree program while also using Shasta's services, such as tutoring centers, the library and health center.
That kind of local support can be critical in keeping online students on track. Indeed, large, online-only colleges have been opening up brick-and-mortar student centers or expanding the hours they offer remote support.
And Columbus, where fewer than 30% of the population has at least an associate degree, took a different approach. It developed an advising framework called the Powerhouse Credentials Crosswalk, which helps create a pathway from one of 30 in-demand certifications to additional relevant credentials and degrees.
The framework has provided more economic mobility to its low-income residents while also creating a pool of "motivated" students from which colleges can recruit, according to the report.
The other featured areas in the report touted the success of their dual-enrollment and apprenticeship programs.
Rural areas have an imperative to boost degree attainment to help workers adjust to technology-driven changes to jobs. As researchers from McKinsey Global Institute note, automation has mostly helped fuel job growth in cities and inhibited growth in rural areas. And those trends are expected to worsen over the next decade.
But innovative solutions to connect workers to relevant credentials and create more opportunities for lifelong learning can help.
In July, Kemi Jona, then the associate dean for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern University, told Education Dive that colleges and universities need to rethink their "approach to lifelong learning." "If higher education continues to think the traditional one-size-fits-all approach is going to work, we're going to miss the boat," he added.