01: Forest for the Trees
The question of what is rural isn’t merely esoteric
. Its definition — or rather, the lack of one in policy, especially at the federal level — has deep ramifications for who gets to college, who graduates, and how easy it is to access key services.
Now, researchers are offering some answers.
The Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC) recently released the results of a year-long effort to build an “RSI score,” the first metric to identify rural-serving institutions. The ARRC also published this interactive RSI Data Tool
for sorting schools by RSI score and other factors.
The RSI score considers five factors: population size of home county, the percentage of their home county and adjacent counties that are defined as rural by Census data, their proximity to a metro area, and the percent of each college’s program awards spent in the areas of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Parks & Recreation services.
There are 1,087 RSIs: That number includes 46% of all public, four-year institutions and more than half of all public two-year colleges.
- Many are diverse: Roughly one-third of HBCUs qualified as RSIs, as did 18% of High Hispanic-enrolling institutions and 93% of Tribal Colleges.
Most are economically challenged: More than two-thirds of postsecondary institutions in counties with low-employment and persistent poverty are RSIs.
They rely more on state funding: RSIs tend to receive a greater share of their revenues from state appropriations compared to other public institutions, and have higher endowments per student.
These takeaways are useful on their own. But the real value of efforts to define rurality will be to finally give lawmakers a compass for directing rural investment — Appalachian State professor Andrew Koricich, executive director of the ARRC, says it has already led to a meeting with an education aide to one U.S. Senator.
“Part of the power of this is that we’ve done the hard work of conceptualizing and identifying these institutions,” Koricich says, which federal and state governments, as well as nonprofits, can then use to direct funding.
Defining rural is a tricky process. But models like this, which consider multiple factors, allow us to assess schools through different lenses of rurality — the inclusion of ag funding as a factor expands rural-serving definitions, for example.
The ARRC study worked to expand the national understanding of rural-serving past just campuses in rural locations. And it follows a complementary December report
from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which went more granular while mapping where rural college courses are offered, including surprising locations such as military bases and hotel conference rooms.
The studies are “like salt and pepper shakers: You use different ones for different reasons,” Koricich says — the first helps define institutions, while the second helps dig deeper into how education is actually delivered in rural areas.
Whichever methods you use to further define it, it’s clear the discourse around rural is finally getting some long needed zest.
02: Roadside Attractions
From 9 Nations to 55. In 2020, the majority of Tohono O’odham Community College students attended class at its remote campus on the edge of the Sonoran Desert along the Arizona-Mexico border. But while many rural colleges lost students, it has nearly doubled enrollment, with 927 students from 55 tribal nations, thanks in part to offering free classes supported by federal aid received during the pandemic.
Milking It? Lactation experts recently appeared in an Atlanta suburbs court to fight a Georgia law that required practitioners, many of whom are women of color with decades of experience, to take two years of college courses and 300 hours of supervised clinical work before educating others about breastfeeding.
Why it Matters:
Lawmakers say extra education is necessary to help improve health outcomes in Georgia, which has the sixth-highest infant mortality rate
in the nation — but experts argue such prohibitive measures only serve to limit access to needed medical care, particularly in rural areas with more limited resources.
Child Care Needed. The Hechinger Report published a look at child care deserts and how filling them could be a boon for rural working parents, reporting from Troy, Vermont, a town of less than 2,000 residents along the Canadian border.