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In the summers of 2008 and 2009, researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture visited high school reunions in 21 rural communities across 17 states. They didn’t plan to grab a drink with a former prom date or reminisce over childhood memories. Their task was to understand why Americans from rural areas had left these communities and how their choices might explain rural population loss across the country.

From more than 300 conversations with reunion attendees, the USDA researchers were able to identify three types: the “stayers” who had never left, the “return migrants” who had moved away but later migrated back and the “nonreturn migrants” who had moved away permanently. The motivations also fell into three categories: family, career and community. Return migrants, for example, often were motivated to reconnect with their families and raise their children in the same community where they grew up. The leavers, on the other hand, preferred urban environments and felt limited by a lack of career options in rural communities.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that encouraging return migration may be more effective at maintaining and increasing rural population than retaining recent high school graduates or encouraging retirees to move to rural communities. Their conclusion aligns with other USDA research that finds rural population growth depends on net in-migration. Returners tend to increase the community’s population, since they return home with spouses and young children. They also fill needed roles as doctors, pharmacists, accountants, bankers, lawyers, hospital administrators, teachers, business managers and entrepreneurs.

This research underscores important lessons about community college transfer. Too often, transfer demands that rural students leave their communities to continue their education. After earning a bachelor’s degree in a city or suburban community, graduates may not see the right job opportunity back home, so they remain in that distant city or town. Even with higher expenses, they can earn more and raise their standard of living. Others simply like the pace of a city. Whatever the reason, their transfer journey contributes to rural out-migration.

It doesn’t need to be this way. How could transfer, instead, produce more stayers and return migrants with bachelor’s degrees?

To answer this question, my team at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program spoke with two dozen leaders and administrators from rural community colleges, tribal colleges and four-year schools. From those conversations (and shared in a new report), we identified three lessons to ensure transfer pathways meet the needs of rural students and communities.

Align transfer pathways with local workforce needs.

We quickly came across a universal truth: if students can’t find jobs connected to their degrees back home, they might never return. This is true with all transfer pathways, but the stakes are higher in rural communities.

To connect home and job, the college leaders we interviewed work to ensure that they and partner universities offer courses and programs that overlap with the needs of local labor markets. For Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, this meant expanding a program that would train social workers and drug addiction counselors to support Appalachian communities devastated by the opioid epidemic. For Shasta College in Northern California, it meant identifying five fields -- business, criminal justice, early childhood education, information technology and social work -- needed across the entire North State Together region.

After getting students on market-aligned pathways, colleges need to ensure they return home. Strategies to encourage return migration include work-based experiences, job placements and financial incentives. For example, in the rural area southeast of Raleigh, N.C., Johnston Community College, Johnston County Public Schools and North Carolina State University have built several connections to the region into their teacher education program. These include summer internships and teaching practicum in the county, guaranteed job interviews and a $10,000 incentive to return.

Address the geographic reality of rural students.

Traditionally, transferring schools requires students to take classes in a new location. This won’t necessarily work for rural students, who may lack transportation to commute or feel more comfortable staying in their communities.

But transfer pathways don’t have to require a departure from the community. Lindsey Wilson delivers its human development and counseling program at over 20 community colleges across the Appalachian region. The college relies on instructors and program staff who live in the communities, as well as Lindsey Wilson faculty willing to drive to these community campuses regularly. Lindsey Wilson offers the program mostly during weekends, so it’s accessible to students and instructors who work during the week.

Similarly, Shasta College’s Bachelor’s Through Online and Local Degrees (BOLD) allows students to transfer while staying in place. BOLD students maintain access to Shasta College’s library, computer labs, tutoring and other services -- including a reliable internet connection -- as they take online courses from one of the California State University campuses or Western Governors University.

Make the pathway to earning a bachelor’s degree convenient and affordable.

Only about 19 percent of rural residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent of those living in urban areas. This means rural students may know few people who have studied at four-year universities, and they may perceive higher education as unnecessary or unaffordable -- a reasonable hesitation, as salaries are lower in rural places than they are elsewhere. Rural colleges, then, need to encourage students to pursue bachelor’s degrees and make that option accessible and affordable.

Shasta College kept tuition costs in mind when identifying partner institutions for the BOLD program. The college was also able to keep BOLD program costs relatively low; a foundation agreed to cover the $46 fee students pay to maintain access to the Shasta campus. (The $46 figure itself is kept low by California’s community colleges having the lowest tuition rates in the U.S.)

Programs with a more traditional transfer journey -- where students move onto a four-year university -- will need to find ways to offset the cost of higher tuition and additional living expenses. For leaders in Johnston County, one solution is to start programs early, through dual enrollment in high school. The state covers the tuition for these courses; in many other states, dual enrollment is free or heavily subsidized. Another is to provide scholarships and loan forgiveness on the back end, through programs such as the North Carolina Teaching Fellows and the Goodnight Scholars Program.

No, rural transfer pathways that apply these three strategies won’t single-handedly reverse demographic trends in rural communities. But they could help more students find a pathway to stay or return home as the teachers, business leaders, nurses and other professionals that their communities desperately need.

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