Community colleges are often the lifeblood of rural communities. They help drive economic opportunity and engagement, providing access to higher education and creating hubs of information, cultural development and personal training.
It is hard to underestimate their importance in rural America, which covers some 72 percent of the nation’s geography but only 15 percent of the population (about 46 million people). According to the Rural Community College Alliance, nearly two-thirds of all public two-year colleges serve rural communities. They are not only a wedge against poverty for those who live and work there, they provide a pathway to larger urban areas, four-year universities and expanded job opportunities.
Those of us who work at or with rural community colleges do not depend on studies to recognize the impact of these schools on the lives of their students. Many of these rural communities struggle with high unemployment, high poverty and population loss. And they face low rates of educational attainment, particularly those with minority populations: About 40 percent of rural Hispanics, for example, have not completed a high school degree.
So it is not a surprise that a 30-year study found that rural counties with established community colleges experienced significantly more job growth than those without one. This was based on an examination of community colleges in more than 2,000 rural counties in 44 U.S. states.
The researchers concluded that, when successful, these colleges play a key role in spurring workforce development, employment and economic prosperity, as well as such social outcomes as health and family stability. And the more that they build connections with local K-12 education and business stakeholders, the more they can overcome such challenges as funding shortages, skill disconnects and other employer needs. This demands that college leaders seek external alliances and align their educational mission with the needs of the local economy.
Individual community colleges also strengthen their impact when they ally with other community colleges. Recognizing this, Science Foundation Arizona helped connect eight rural Arizona colleges, for example, serving as a mentor and facilitator to identify industry workforce needs and develop STEM programs that position their students on pathways to success. This includes sharing programs, strategies and best practices, as well as collecting and analyzing data to measure results. SFAz also funded three rural community colleges with $1.5 million in state-directed stimulus funding to develop engineering and applied technology pathways. Efforts like these make it possible for existing industries to find skilled talent locally, but it also gives local graduates the ability to develop valuable skills close to home and then expand the range of their job searches.
This is not unique. In Texas over the last two decades, South Texas College created five community college campuses to increase the number of students earning a post-secondary degree or credential. As noted by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), their work to link high schools and community colleges with business and industry needs led to major drops in unemployment in South Texas. Their efforts also attracted high-profile technology businesses seeking to take advantage of the emerging talent within the Rio Grande River Valley.
There are many other examples that illustrate the growing awareness of the key part that community colleges play in driving prosperity. As the NCSL report on workforce development explains, “Realizing the potential community colleges have in connecting students and job seekers to industry and business needs, many communities and regions have aligned place-based strategies around the colleges.” This underscores their leadership role within their communities.
While there is much anecdotal evidence to confirm this trend, one set of statistics comparing 2000 and 2014 offers clear evidence that progress is being made. Young rural adults ages 25 to 34 who received some college training or earned an associate’s degree rose from 25 to 30 percent, and even surpassed the attainment levels of their urban counterparts (29 percent). Still, there is room for growth: The percentage of young rural adults who earned a bachelor’s degree remains well below their urban counterparts—19 vs. 32 percent.
Even though getting a four-year degree in rural areas is arduous, the community college can play a critical role on that pathway and help to increase the percentage of four-year completions. In the coming years, we will continue our work and contribute toward a developing body of evidence that illustrates the important role that rural colleges can play as engines of economic development.
Caroline VanIngen-Dunn is the Director of Community College STEM Pathways for Science Foundation Arizona. The National Science Foundation has funded SFAz to work with community colleges (Grant #1450661), particularly those that are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions and those in rural communities. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.