Rural public colleges are local job engines, which means their closures would be economically devastating, according to a new report from the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.
The newly formed research group found that 19 of 115 counties served by rural public institutions have high unemployment. That figure would soar to 51 if these colleges closed.
Rural public colleges are chronically underfunded compared to their peers, the alliance points out. It is urging the federal government to pass aid that would benefit this contingent.
Despite their local impact, rural public colleges have received less per student in state appropriations than the national average, which includes state flagships and research institutions. Their tuition revenue is also below average.
The alliance means to show why more investment in these institutions is necessary. The researchers studied 118 rural public institutions, the vast majority being regional colleges, though they also included a few research and land-grant institutions. Some in the sample were also minority-serving institutions.
The group pointed out that these colleges provide degrees in high-demand local sectors, which would add to the fallout if these institutions were to shut down. Rural public colleges conferred 16,248 degrees in health professions and similar programs in 2019, including 9,662 nursing degrees, a job facing massive shortages.
To help these schools respond to the current crisis, the researchers said the federal government should create block grants for states that would help restore the institutions' pre-Great Recession funding levels. Future federal coronavirus aid should also be based on headcount, not full-time equivalent enrollment, they urged. The latest round of relief money uses a formula to distribute funding that includes headcount, enabling schools that enroll many part-time students to receive more money.
The researchers recommend the government give $1,000 grants to students attending rural public colleges who are eligible for federal Pell Grants, a common measure of campus poverty. This money could be used to purchase laptops for remote learning. Over the past several years, the share of undergraduates in online programs at rural public colleges has grown, the report notes.
In the long term, the researchers said, the federal government could help establish teaching health clinics and hospitals at rural schools, improve partnerships with healthcare providers to enable more training and consider loan forgiveness for health science graduates. This would improve rural public health, they argue.
They encouraged the government to boost workforce development and create a "Rural Serving Institution" designation in federal law that would provide grants for these institutions.