How do you see your students? And how do your students see themselves? “Identity” is a complex and dynamic concept, which varies widely from person to person and shifts over time, as the way in which we know ourselves and one another evolves and grows. As elusive as the concept may be, identity is an essential factor in student success strategy—there is no “one size fits all” method to supporting students and helping them achieve their goals. Institutions must understand their students’ backgrounds and lived experiences to provide support and guidance that fits their needs.
This series of blog posts explores identities shaped by circumstances, demographic factors, and individual-specific challenges and needs. Within these posts, we’ll discuss when recognizing and differentiating support around specific identifying characteristics can be helpful and when it can be harmful. We’ll also consider the intersectional nature of identity, and how schools and their staff can become more equity-minded as they work to better support each student they serve.
Previous posts in this series:
When most people picture a typical college student’s day, they might envision someone in their late teens or early twenties waking up in a dorm, walking to the dining hall for breakfast, taking a tree-lined path to their classes, then socializing with friends on the quad later that night. It’s less likely that they would imagine someone in their mid-thirties, who works full-time, driving half an hour to campus to take night classes. Even so, 670,000 US students have a college experience more like the latter description than the former at one of over 260 rural community colleges across the country.
Due to lower population density, rural areas have less access to high-speed internet, fewer transportation options, and scarcer job training resources than metropolitan areas. As such, enrollment declines have hit many of these communities especially hard. Students (and prospective students) in rural areas face distinct challenges in obtaining an education. Thankfully, community colleges are well-positioned to offer innovative services that meet those needs.
During a recent EAB roundtable, three community college leaders discussed how their institutions meet rural students’ unique needs. Based on their conversation, here are five imperatives for supporting rural students.
5 ways to meet rural students' needs
1. Provide financial assistance
The poverty rate is higher in rural areas than in metro areas, and COVID-19 drove financial aid applications down by 18% in these communities. Especially during the past two years, many students have had difficulty justifying college as a financially viable investment. Providing students with the financial assistance they need to complete their education is a win-win for rural students and schools.
Pueblo Community College implemented an initiative that expanded conversations about financial aid to focus on other forms of financial assistance and individualized support. When a student worked with Pueblo’s counselors on financial aid, counselors would identify that student’s broader needs and direct them toward academic assistance and help with administrative hurdles. Pueblo analyzed the results of their efforts, comparing the retention rate of students they’d supported versus their standard retention rate. They found that the retention rate for students they’d assisted through their individualized support initiative was 17% higher than their standard retention rate.
Northwest State Community College (NSCC) recognized that students often have small, outstanding debts which can act as blocks toward continuing their education. A few hundred dollars for books or course fees can sometimes make the difference between a student continuing their education or stopping out. As such, NSCC used Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) dollars to eliminate those debts for many of its students, allowing them to stay on track and stay enrolled. While other schools opted out of using funds for debt relief, NSCC saw financial relief as an essential strategy for supporting their students. Albert Lewis, NSCC’s Executive Vice President, said, “What we always come back to is, we’re here for our students. How do we make it work for our students? That’s our North Star for everything.”
2. Address transportation issues
Rural students often live in so-called “higher education deserts,” defined as areas “more than 25 miles from a broad-access public university [which] do not have access to the high-speed internet connection needed for online education.” This makes transportation a critical part of student access. Rural colleges have to work creatively with existing transportation infrastructure to make it possible for students to reach and attend class in person. Rural areas also tend to lack reliable public transportation, so reaching campus to attend class is a real concern. Seminole State College leveraged a partnership with a local bus agency to streamline routes to align with course start times on their four campuses. Seminole also worked with the bus company to provide free bus fare for students, subsidized through a student activity fee.
Assisting students with funding to maintain and fuel their vehicles is another route schools can follow to ensure students can reach and attend class. However, by the time funds reach students, they may have missed several classes and found themselves in a difficult academic position. How fast students receive funding is almost as important as the money itself, so Pueblo Community College focused on speeding up the process of getting scholarship funds to those who needed help. Pueblo used HEERF funds to
provide transportation-based scholarships of $1,500-3,000 to students each semester, covering gas, maintenance, and repair costs. Pueblo also partnered with the Educational Credit Management Corporation to fund emergency transportation scholarships so that a flat tire wouldn't prevent a student from attending class.
3. Make education more flexible
Because rural community college students often balance several competing priorities alongside their education, these students benefit when community colleges offer flexible programming. For example, Seminole State College observed that one of the population centers in their service area had very few high school graduates enroll in their college. After outreach and marketing in the area did not improve the enrollment rate, Seminole spoke directly with community members to learn about their needs and career goals. Residents spoke to the distance from campus as a roadblock for some students. Seminole responded by bringing businesses classes to the neighborhood itself this year, allowing fifteen students to attend class directly in their community rather than traveling to campus. Seminole also funded books and laptops for students through their foundation, eliminating another barrier. “We meet the students where they are,” said Associate Vice President Geoffrey Fortunato, and in this case, that is both literally and figuratively true.
Online and hybrid courses are inherently more flexible than in-person classes. Like most institutions, many rural community colleges accelerated the transition to online and hybrid course delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual education and advising can significantly ease burdens for many rural students. For example, Pueblo Community College created an improved online student services system with EAB’s Navigate. Staff meet virtually with students, then personally introduce students to the next staff member the student needs to meet with, streamlining the process for students. This allows rural students, whose internet access may be sporadic, to complete registration or financial aid processes efficiently during periods that they have a stable internet connection.
4. Offer direct job skill training
Most community college students enroll to advance professionally: either starting a new career or upskilling in their current role. Rural community colleges can fulfill a critical role if they build and leverage strong relationships with Workforce Development Boards and local nonprofits to develop mutually beneficial partnerships that can lead directly to employment for community college students.
Over half of the students at Northwest State Community College (NSCC) are enrolled in an apprenticeship program. As such, students pair their education with real, on-the-ground job skill training. NSCC works with its faculty and labor unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to develop training curriculum that also counts for accredited college credits. After the apprenticeship, students can decide to continue their trade or transition to a four-year school. This program offers real-world job training with the opportunity to earn a degree.
5. Help students plan their educational journey
With enrollment on the decline, it is especially critical for rural community colleges to connect with prospective students early and help them understand how education will help them reach their goals. To achieve this, Seminole State College partners with local high schools to run dual enrollment programs, allowing high school students to earn credits that count toward their education at Seminole State while still in high school.
Seminole uses EAB’s Navigate to enable students to build a pathway that links their educational journey with their eventual career, starting as early as high school. The pathway lets Seminole illustrate the critical nature of its offerings while allowing students to plan how they can reach their career goals.
Supporting students from the start
Rural community colleges are at the forefront of many of the shifts happening in higher education. From a heavy focus on career preparation to offering flexible learning models to streamlining financial aid processes, rural schools are innovators in finding ways to leverage scare resources to serve student needs.
The challenges rural students face will persist and evolve with time, but community colleges will always play a unique role in addressing those challenges, helping students advance in their careers and lives. We hope these insights from peers in the field offer helpful guidance in resolving some of the challenges your students face.
Want more on student success?
Explore 4 potential long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on college enrollment and student success in our new whitepaper, The Pandemic Ripple Effect.