Helping Rural Community Colleges Adjust to a Post-COVID World

May 18, 2022

Across the United States, a divide is widening. Once a defining centerpiece of the nation, Rural America is diminishing as young people, talent, and economic prosperity gravitate toward urban centers. For decades, community colleges in rural America have contended with the demographic shifts, labor market changes, and poverty causing this divide. Then the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted rural areas and their most marginalized populations — exacerbating the current struggles and piling on a collection of new ones. Rural college leaders can overcome these challenges and find new opportunities, but only if they act boldly. To do so, these leaders must redefine their roles with a singular focus on addressing long-standing inequities and promoting the upward economic mobility of their students.

The Rural Leader Learning Community

Today’s challenges call for significant action — and bold regional leadership — from rural college leaders. The Rural Leader Learning Community (RLLC) is a cohort of rural community college leaders who engage in professional development opportunities and explore innovative solutions to concerns unique to the rural context. The RLLC, established in late 2020, is a cross-functional group of 27 rural community college senior administrators from 25 states. It was created by the National Center for Inquiry & Improvement (NCII), with funding support from the Ascendium Education Group. A crucial early deliverable from this group was to develop a series of briefs that explores how rural community colleges can best position themselves for long-term viability after the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Rural Community College Leader Series

The Rural Community College Leader Series consists of six topical briefs and one overarching brief, setting the context for the rest. The members of the RLLC identified the topics by exploring a range of critical issues and then prioritizing those that were deemed to be most pressing. Taken as a whole, the series highlights how colleges can regain control of their regions’ talent pipelines, serve as engines of economic improvement, and provide opportunities for both individual upward mobility and regional stability.

The six topical briefs were written by two-person teams, with a primary and secondary author who are members of the RLLC. A group of reviewers (also from the RLLC) helped refine the final briefs. The series is designed to be accessible and action-oriented. College leaders can utilize all the briefs or pick and choose the issues most important to them. Each of the briefs, succinctly summarized below, includes a short overview of the topic, examples of how colleges are working to address the issue, and a set of discussion questions college leaders can use to explore the matter further.

  • The Big Picture: Today’s challenges call for significant action — and bold regional leadership — from rural community college leaders. The Big Picture provides the context for the individual topical briefs. 
  • Brief 1 - Creating a College-Going Mindset: In most rural areas, many individuals do not consider college to be an option. To promote a college-going mindset, colleges must design structures and programs that meet students where they are.
  • Brief 2 - Acting Boldly to Build Financial Solvency: While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a distressing impact on rural community colleges, leaders at most institutions have long been aware that the current business model is unsustainable, and there is a need to think differently moving forward.
  • Brief 3 - Cultivating Partnerships to Support Students’ Basic Needs: Rural residents face a range of challenges that discourage college and make dropping out more likely. Rural colleges must tap into their community networks to combat these issues and support students.
  • Brief 4 - Diversifying Faculty at Rural Colleges: Everyone benefits from having varying perspectives on a diverse campus. Forward-thinking colleges can address this issue with honest conversations and purposeful solutions to strive toward a faculty that reflects their student population. 
  • Brief 5 - Redesigning Advising and Support Services: Students in rural America face hardships that differ from their suburban and urban counterparts that require different kinds of advising structures and wraparound services.
  • Brief 6 - Collaborating to Create Regional Economic Opportunity: Every community college should be a local engine of opportunity, but colleges cannot do this work alone. College leaders must bring community stakeholders together to improve economic mobility.

This series was written by college practitioners for college practitioners. We encourage college leaders to use these briefs—individually or collectively—to facilitate conversations on their campuses about these critical issues. We hope you find it helpful.

About the authors: Christopher Baldwin is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Inquiry & Improvement. Gretchen Schmidt is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Inquiry & Improvement.

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