These rural colleges are beating the odds to drive student success

Northwest Iowa Community College (Sheldon, Iowa) was able to stir enthusiasm for a college degree among its quickly growing Hispanic population by hosting a series of events in Spanish to expose new students and families to the school's resources and opportunities.

A new initiative among 16 prestigious schools with the likes of Yale and CalTech has recently joined the Small Town and Rural Student College Network to build rural student pipelines to prestigious four-year institutions. However, a new guide by The Aspen Institute suggests a different approach: Rural community colleges have the potential to revitalize the surrounding area by unlocking economic mobility and technological advances.

Rural Community College Excellence: A Guide to Delivering Strong Opportunities for Students and Communities provides examples from several succeeding rural community colleges about how these entities can maintain their status as essential hubs to drive societal growth and talent development.

The large open spaces of rural towns expose their community college students to several unique industries that they can contribute to, such as those in agriculture, tourism/recreation and energy and mineral production. However, rural community college students also play a part in preparing their students for work that will be replacing those legacy industries, such as advanced manufacturing. Not unique to any town are those in essential services in education, health care and accounting, which will always require a steady stream of new hires.

Still, skepticism about higher education threatens to upend rural community colleges. For example, in a survey conducted by the Education Commission of the States, 40% of respondents believed that higher education can provide a stable career path during harsh economic times. School leaders from several successful rural community colleges were able to forge trust with potential students and understand regional labor market needs to build better outcomes.

More from UB: Mentorship program bumps retention rates of minority male students, study finds

Approaches to promoting rural college success

Create pathways to economic mobility

Walla Walla Community College (Walla Walla, Wash.) leverages labor market data to prioritize employer partnerships whose industries show strong demand for new hires with strong competitive wages, and they are willing to turn down partnerships with employers if that means protecting their degrees’ return on investment. For example, the school conducted a national market analysis on wine consumption and discovered a national demand for high-end wine. After a $5 million investment and a decade of collaboration between the city, the county and local employers, Walla Walla opened more than 170 wineries and is now a tourist destination. The rural town leveraged its open space to create a booming industry and build student employment opportunities. The school has since been involved with the Water and Environmental Center where students with watershed ecology degrees can contribute to solving water shortage problems.

Convince students to enroll and stay in college

Enrollment at Patrick & Henry Community Colleges (Martinsville, Va.) has maintained a healthy pulse largely due to their leaders’ community engagement. Their outreach initiatives to students, families and K12 guidance counselors on the benefits of enrolling in school to study manufacturing helped erase the industry’s once notorious stigma in that area, one that had previously guided students further into devaluing college education. Courses in manufacturing are now filled up within two days of opening.

Northwest Iowa Community College (Sheldon, Iowa) was able to stir enthusiasm for a college degree among its quickly growing Hispanic population by hosting a series of events in Spanish to expose new students and families to the school’s resources and opportunities. Consequently, 75% of students who attend these events enroll at the college.

Utilize small size as a strength

Lake Area Technical College (Watertown, S.D.) boasts a 76% three-year graduation rate and transfer rate, which is 30% higher than the national average. This impressive statistic can be largely attributed to their school structure and unique student-faculty engagement.

Because school enrollment is modest, Lake Area Tech embarks its students on a prescribed program of study in cohorts of about 17 students rather than having them simply choose their initial coursework. This approach drives interaction and collaboration between students and teachers. Additionally, the school leverages its low staff by doubling them as these students’ advisors, and what these teachers find is that their experience in advising reinforces their teaching because they understand their needs better, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

Most Popular