Bumps in the Road for Rural Students

Rural community colleges grapple with nonacademic barriers that hinder their students from staying and completing.

October 4, 2017
 

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The demands on rural community colleges when it comes to keeping students from dropping out extend far beyond academics.

Food, transportation, housing, health care and child care insecurities and lack of access to broadband internet dominated the concerns discussed by college leaders at the Rural Community College Alliance national conference here last week.

“Poverty in the rural community just looks different from poverty in urban areas,” said Jared Reed, a doctoral student studying rural community colleges at Iowa State University and Pathways for Academic Career and Employment program lead navigator at Southeastern Community College in Iowa. “Trying to have a discussion about the importance of attending class falls to the back burner if a student is in survival mode. They may understand what you’re saying, but they also haven’t had anything to eat, or haven’t had a shower in days because their power has been cut off.”

The proportion of rural adults aged 25 and older with an associate degree increased from 6 percent to 9 percent from 2000 to 2015. But the proportion of rural adults with some college and no degree also increased, from 20 percent to 22 percent in the same time frame, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Low educational attainment rates also correspond to higher poverty rates in rural areas. From 2011 to 2015, the average poverty rate for rural counties with low education was about 8 percent higher than other rural counties. Low-education counties are those in which 20 percent or more of the adults lack a high school diploma, according to the Agriculture Department.

Funding decreases from state legislatures to colleges have forced educators to rely increasingly on their foundations to provide financial assistance for programs that address the lack of basic necessities. And beyond the institution, there are little to no existing resources for public transportation, social services or food pantries, which are more difficult to come by in rural areas.

“Those existing resources, like churches, in rural communities are oftentimes already hit hard,” Reed said, adding that there are fewer community support groups in rural areas compared to urban ones.

That increases the burden rural colleges bear when addressing basic necessities their students may lack. And often, rural community colleges, despite their small enrollment sizes, are addressing issues that affect people across multiple counties.

“It’s really important to not lose focus and forget we’re open access, and that means regardless of potential applicants’ level of socioeconomic status -- they may be on welfare, or on Medicaid, or living in Section 8 housing,” Reed said. “But they might also be a 4.0 [grade point average] student.”

Southeastern in Iowa, for example, has an enrollment of 2,844 students across four counties with a population of about 105,000 people.

“Living in one community and attending class in another just means those issues of poverty get spread out over a geographic area,” Reed said. “It’s not limited to where they live.”

There isn’t a blanket solution to any of the nonacademic barriers students face, which means colleges are looking for innovative and different ways to address the problems.

Davidson County Community College, in North Carolina, is part of the Single Stop nonprofit initiative, which connects community college students to housing assistance, food benefits, financial counseling and other social services.

With the large geographic region and smaller populations in rural areas, transportation also remains a concern for community colleges and students who may not have reliable methods of getting to and from classes.

Most of Davidson’s service area is farmland, and while there is a small public bus system, the schedule doesn’t always fit the college’s schedule, said Stacy Waters-Bailey, the Single Stop director for the college, adding that trying to make an 8 a.m. class could be difficult if a student relies on the bus.

“We are moving class start times next academic year to 8:30 a.m., so students don’t lose points or be afraid of being late,” she said. “And this inadvertently is helping parents who need to get their children on the bus. So, we’re hoping more students sign up for 8:30 classes.”

But even if a student has their own vehicle to get to campus, that doesn’t mean it’s reliable. So Davidson partnered with a local car maintenance agency that helps students cover the cost of repairs. The college also offers free maintenance and small repairs to students through its automotive courses.

Officials at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, in Virginia, negotiated extended-stay rates at local hotels for students, said Matt McGraw, associate vice president of institutional effectiveness and academic services at the college, adding that Dabney also negotiated company housing at a local resort that employs students.

“But if a student becomes homeless, we can partner with emergency shelters,” he said, adding that for male students the situation becomes more difficult since there are very few, if any, shelter spaces available for them, and often they’re forced into shelters an hour away from campus in a larger city like Roanoke.

Even if poverty and basic necessities like food and housing aren’t a concern for students, there may be other regional issues that colleges are trying to overcome.

At Riverland Community College, in Minnesota, Sheryl Barton, a business and office technology instructor at the college, said it’s not unusual to find students staying on campus until it closes at 10 p.m. The campus is often the only place in the area where they can do schoolwork online.

“The community college has the infrastructure available on campus, but once they are off campus and into the community, the residents and students suffer because individuals and families don’t often have the resources to go out and have high-speed internet installed, even if it is available,” Reed said.

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