- Rural-serving institutions (RSIs) face particular challenges involving enrollment, student access, and financial resources.
- The relationship and alignment between RSIs and their surrounding communities is critical.
- RSIs can and often should be leading economic engines for the regions they serve.
- RSIs must be willing to take financial risks to elevate their programmatic offerings.
- It is important for leaders of small RSIs to accurately diagnose the roots of the different challenges they face. Some challenges can arise from being a small institution, others from being located in a rural area, and still others from being in a very remote location. These situations may all require different solutions.
- Special efforts must be made to ensure that diverse and dynamic trustees serve on the boards of RSIs.
The stakes are rising for the nation’s rural-serving higher education institutions (RSIs), students, and the communities they serve. In some cases, changing student demographics and financial challenges at these colleges and universities can lead to closure or significantly scaled back educational offerings, increasing the risk of reduced access to higher education and the rise of “education deserts” throughout the country.
On May 31, for example, Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, closed after 181 years, creating just such a desert, says Andrew Koricich, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC). “That leaves the whole southeast quadrant of Iowa with no four-year university,” Koricich says. “I think it’s just really sad.”
And Iowa Wesleyan is far from alone. Other rural-serving colleges or universities that have closed or announced closure in the past several years include Alderson-Broaddus University in West Virginia; Chatfield College in Ohio; MacMurray College in Illinois; Nebraska Christian College; Marlboro College in Vermont; Holy Family College in Wisconsin; Ohio Valley University in West Virginia; Lincoln College in Illinois; Marymount California University; Cazenovia College in New York; Finlandia University in Michigan; and Presentation College in South Dakota. In addition, state university systems in Pennsylvania and Vermont have closed or consolidated universities or colleges in rural areas. Many other RSIs have averted closure only by dramatically scaling back educational programs, particularly those offering degrees with relatively weaker job prospects, Koricich says. As the demographic cliff approaches, the challenge for these institutions is likely to only increase, meaning more closures are likely to follow.
Yet some RSIs are finding ways to survive and even thrive despite these challenges. The solution, numerous rural college leaders agreed, often lies not in seeking to echo slick urban institutions, but rather in embracing their ruralness in all its dimensions—which can open up surprising sources of support—and in picking carefully where to allocate their limited time and monies.
“Let’s stop with the madness of trying to transform these institutions into Arizona, Las Vegas, or other urban markets and instead ask ourselves, ‘What is it that we can do for rural America? And how do we own rural and celebrate rural in all of its uniqueness?’” says Amy Novak, now president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, but until February 2021 president of an RSI, Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, for eight years. During Novak’s tenure, Dakota Wesleyan experienced record enrollment, growing by 15 percent to peak at 950 students, the largest enrollment in the university’s history. It also surpassed all previous university fundraising records by raising $50 million and made significant updates to the campus’ infrastructure by adding four new major buildings, all donor-funded. Along the way, it formed more than 50 partnerships with businesses in the region and launched a variety of innovative academic programs and initiatives, such as an LPN-BS in nursing program to address rural healthcare shortages, a digital media and design major to support three local telecommunications software-development and engineering programs; and a certificate program in parish ministry designed to support pastors across rural America. “At Dakota Wesleyan, we just put our stake in the ground around being the place to educate people for rural nursing, rural economic development, rural small business, and rural ministry,” says Novak.
What is a Rural-Serving Institution?
Not least among the many challenges confronting these institutions is how best to define them. Generally, RSIs have smaller student enrollment pools, fewer resources and economic opportunities, and stiff competition from larger higher education institutions located in more affluent and economically diverse locales, which can usually offer better post-academic job prospects. Many of RSIs’ students are from less affluent backgrounds, are particularly wary of taking on debt, and are open to entering the workforce early and pursuing education later. But the designation can still be complicated.
For purposes of many federal grants, rural has a precise definition that carries real fiscal impacts. Many federal grant programs, for example, require that grantees or program beneficiaries be outside of cities with populations of 50,000 or more, notes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s USDA Rural Development Institutions of Higher Education Funding and Resource Guide. The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area. Yet, defining institutions as “rural” based simply upon location may inappropriately include some institutions and exclude others.
In January 2022, the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC) released a report, Introducing Our Rural Serving Post-Secondary Institutions: Moving Toward Greater Visibility and Appreciation (regionalcolleges.org), that uses a composite of criteria to evaluate which institutions are and are not rural-serving. The report concluded that:
- There were a total of 1,087 RSIs, including 33 percent of all private, four-year institutions; 46 percent of all public, four-year institutions; and more than half of all public, two-year colleges.
- Roughly one-third of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are RSIs, as are 18 percent of High Hispanic-enrolling Institutions, 93 percent of Tribal Colleges and Universities, and 94 percent of nontribal institutions enrolling high numbers of Native American students.
- Nearly one-third of private, four-year institutions are RSIs, which emphasizes the important role that private institutions play in serving rural communities and students.
- RSIs have particular importance to the regions in which they are located because many rural places have few postsecondary institutions nearby. As a result, they are vital players in human infrastructure, economic health, and community well-being. Additionally, these institutions serve as important cultural hubs.
- RSIs often must carry out their missions with fewer resources than non-rural institutions. The ARRC report found that rural institutions bring in less tuition and fee revenue, state appropriations, grants and contracts, and philanthropic contributions compared to institutions located outside of rural areas. For example, measuring endowment assets per FTE student, non-RSIs hold an average of $42,773 per student, whereas RSIs have an average of $28,589 per student.
- The report also identifies a smaller set of 505 RSIs that serve the largest number of rural students, according to its composite criteria, which it designated as “high” RSIs (HRSIs).
The Federal and State Roles
Many RSIs are heavily reliant upon USDA loan assistance. Some rural leaders question whether it is enough. Forgiveness of Iowa Wesleyan’s $26 million debt to the USDA might have saved the institution, Koricich says. “The United States government has forgiven billions of dollars in loans. They could have forgiven $26 million to make sure that we didn’t create an education desert in a quarter of a Midwestern state.” Still, nearly all RSI leaders recognize that there will never be sufficient federal or state dollars to adequately fund the sector. Federal funding should be targeted at those institutions that most need it and will do the most with it, Koricich says. A good start might be to focus funding on the HRSIs identified in the ARRC report, he says.
Currently, state support for RSIs varies widely, Koricich says. North Carolina, where his own Appalachian State University is based, is among the most supportive, he says, noting a strong network of public higher education institutions.” We have 58 community colleges in North Carolina and most of them are in rural places, while half of the University of North Carolina system is in rural places,” Koricich says. “There was a time when North Carolina public higher education was extremely well funded. And this [robust] system is, I think, an artifact of that.”
The diversity and strength of North Carolina RSIs also applies to private colleges and universities, says Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. “Rural North Carolina students must be a priority for North Carolina’s 36 independent colleges and universities because they comprise most of the state’s students we serve,” Williams says. “All but six of North Carolina’s 100 counties are classified as rural or regional/suburban, based on 2020 Census data, and North Carolina has the second largest number of rural K-12 students in the nation.”
Lessons from RSIs
Several RSIs profiled below show diverse strategies for achieving success but also some commonalities.
Averett University in 42,000-resident Danville, Virginia, shows how RSIs can capitalize on the assets they have and pursue opportunities to help lead their often-small local communities. Located in a rural corner of Virginia near the North Carolina border, Averett draws 35 to 40 percent of its students from a 60-mile radius around the university, says President Tiffany Franks, who joined Averett in 2008, although the institution also draws students from 24 states and 25 countries. About 40 percent of Averett students are first-generation college students.
“We call ourselves the hometown university because there’s no other four-year institution within a 60-mile radius,” says Franks. Averett has a total enrollment of about 1,317 with a possible increase of 100 by fall, she adds. Over the last dozen years, Averett has expanded its economic reach through a variety of local partnerships. That strategy was set in motion after the Averett board recognized that a reorientation of the institution and a transformative leader were needed, says the Rev. Dan Carlton, board member and former board chair. “Today we talk about Averett being the hometown university, but we would have never said that in 2006. We were a private, four-year institution that happened to be in the then-economically challenged town of Danville, but that was not really connected to Danville. I’ll never forget that Dr. Franks told the board very early on after she joined us that there wasn’t going to be a meeting in Danville in which Averett was not represented. That was revolutionary when she said it. We had hoped that Danville could turn around, and Danville has done so. Averett was one of many contributing drivers of Danville’s economic improvement.”
For example, when Danville began work to revitalize its River District—a historic stretch of downtown along the Dan River that declined with the departure of tobacco and textile companies—Averett was one of the first to take a risk and invest. The city needed a project that could kickstart the area, and Averett responded by opening its health sciences building, what it called its “Riverview Campus,” a $5 million investment that became a catalyst for change and growth of the city’s now thriving River District, Franks says.
The board had worried about getting a strong leader to come to an economically depressed area, Carlton says. But Franks says she saw the potential of the institution and Danville. “My husband and I made a couple trips up here before we interviewed,” she said. “What I saw was a community and a university that had so many devoted people who were passionate about the institution. I also saw the only school I ever knew in the country that had both an aeronautics and an equestrian studies program in a small rural area.” She adds, “You didn’t see a lot of small privates with those kinds of assets.”
The board helped to guide Franks toward addressing the key challenges they thought were important, Carlton says. “So many presidents don’t get the kind of honest assessment of an institution as they’re coming aboard,” Carlton says. “So they’re not clear on what the board expects. We were clear with her.” Expanding the school’s nursing program was one of the first action items.
“There was not a four-year nursing program here and you could see, even 15 years ago, that we were going to have this horrible nursing shortage,” Franks says, noting that she was able to persuade the board to allow the administration to raise the $3.5 million needed to launch a program. Today, the program offers bachelor’s, master’s, and a recently added accelerated bachelor’s program, as well as a post-master’s certificate for emergency nurse practitioners, in all serving more than 150 students.
Given Averett is near Danville Regional Airport, aviation also has long been a major focus for Danville and for Averett. Under Franks’ tenure, that focus has increased. Averett now offers several degree programs in aeronautics, including a bachelor of science in aeronautics management and a bachelor of science in flight operations, both of which provide paths to becoming a licensed pilot. Averett has 115 aeronautics majors with classes preparing students for five certifications: a private pilot certificate, a commercial pilot certificate, a flight instructor certificate, a flight instructor instrument certificate, and an instrument rating certificate.
In fall 2024, Averett is planning to launch an aviation maintenance partnership with Danville Community College (DCC). Community college students will be able to get their associate’s degree in aviation mechanics through DCC in Averett’s space at the Danville Regional Airport, and then can pursue their bachelor’s degree in aeronautics as Averett students.
But perhaps most dramatically, in January 2021, Averett began managing the fixed based operations (FBO) at the Danville Regional Airport, typically the ground services for private or recreational flights. “Given our strong aeronautics program, that just seemed like a natural fit,” Franks says. “However, if you go look across the country at who’s running FBOs, you don’t generally see a small college or university.” Bidding for that contract and winning it against a commercial competitor required effort. “I think the hardest part was helping the powers that be understand that a small university can run the airport, because in their minds, you’ve run a university, not an airport,” Franks says. “It took a lot of persistence.”
Averett established a new AU Aviation Services division of the university to house the FBO business, and the division now provides an auxiliary revenue stream that supports the university’s mission, Franks says. In 2022, Averett serviced 610 planes. The business is already profitable, generating $250,000 in profits in 2022 and is on track to increase that to $275,000 in 2023, Franks says.
The FBO business is also valuable because it increases the visibility and prominence of the institution. “When the governor of Virginia sees me, he asks me, ‘How’s that airport?’ “ Franks notes. “Also, it is a window into our community for the 600 planes that came in last year. The pilots and passengers see this great university running the FBO, welcoming them to the region, and introducing them to the hometown university,” Franks says. “And our aeronautics graduates are flying all around the world, whether it’s for major commercial airlines, corporations, or in the military.”
Franks adds that she has no concerns that some educational programs tied to the business ventures described might be viewed as more technical than academic education. Rather, she says, Averett is poised to capitalize on the rising numbers of adult learners who prefer to seek education after some work experience. Students today, she notes, are not all “traditional 18-year-olds who are setting out for that four-year degree. That’s certainly one group, we know, but there are so many others and we’ve got to be able to appeal to this whole range.”
According to Averett’s graduation/alumni survey, administered right after graduation and then again six months later, the focus on employment is succeeding, with 73 percent of Averett grads employed, 11 percent continuing their education, and 15 percent still seeking work.
Carlton concludes it is important for small private RSIs to focus on their niches. “What small institutions have to do well is be deeply connected to their communities and to the constituencies that they serve,” Carlton says. “Given most of our students are first-generation college students, we need to do what we do very well: We change kids’ lives. We provide that first-generation student the ability to increase the economic vitality of a family from what they grew up with to, now, a stable job, stable employment, and the chance to move up economically and socially. That’s what we do.”
University of Pikeville
Like Averett, the University of Pikeville (UPIKE), a Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college, is in a remote location, in old coal country in southeastern Kentucky, notes UPIKE President Burton Webb. With about 2,100 students, about 40 or so percent live on campus, with the rest of them living close enough that they live off campus, Webb notes. “A total of 50 to 60 percent of UPIKE undergraduates come from a 10-county radius, with some of that bleeding over into [the adjacent states of] West Virginia and Virginia,” Webb says.
Health care has been an engine for growth for the institution. In 1997, UPIKE opened the Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine, the only medical school in Kentucky outside of the Lexington and Louisville urban areas. “Their medical school is basically integral to providing health care in the whole region,” Koricich says. “This is what that region needs.”
UPIKE also has a nursing school, recently opened an optometry school, and is preparing to add a dental school. The medical school has turned into a financial asset for UPIKE, generating significant operating revenue, but at the time the decision was made to build the facility it was a large risk for the institution, costing more than $50 million for the building alone, notes Terry Dotson, a UPIKE alumnus who has been on the institution’s board since 1976 and its chairman since 1995. “Back then, we were a small undergraduate school and there were an awful lot of questions,” Dotson says. “It was the leadership of the people that were on the board at the time who correctly saw a need for the university to educate people who want to practice rural medicine from rural parts of the country in a rural setting. It took a large leap of faith and an awful lot of hard work by a group of people to make that become a reality, but it turned out to be very, very, very successful.”
The initiative helped unify the community behind UPIKE, Dotson says. “There was a lot of civic activity around getting fundraising and the charter for the medical school,” he adds. “And so it wasn’t just the school saying, ‘Hey, we want a med school; we want to get bigger.’ It was sort of this collaborative effort of people who realized that this was such a grossly underserved area.”
UPIKE continued to build upon its strong health base through its Kentucky College of Optometry, launched in 2016. “We’re one of the largest and most modern schools in the country, and I think we’re the only one in the country that can teach an advanced scope of practice which includes a large number of surgical procedures because of Kentucky law, which has turned out to be very, very good for us,” Dotson says. Nursing is also a strong program, he notes. The medical and optometry schools help bring students of national caliber, adds Webb.
Success in those areas led to a $25 million gift to open a new dental school, the Kentucky College of Dental Medicine, which hopes to begin classes in 2025. Starting a new health school is a challenging endeavor, Webb notes. “Fundraising, accreditation, facilities management, and finding the right personnel are the difficult components of starting something new,” Webb says. “It all takes an incredible amount of investment and time. In addition, you must plan for new programs to lose money for the first three or four years.”
Opening professional schools also requires a careful assessment of local and regional needs, he adds. “The decision to open the school of optometry was based on a feasibility study that looked at optometry trends in the region,” Webb says, which found that many nearby counties were lacking in adequate eye care. “So, we thought, ‘It looks like there is a mission for us to provide for the eye care of this region,’” Webb says. The opening of the optometry school will serve as a model for the dental school, which was launched based upon a similar needs assessment, Webb says. “Appalachia has significant oral health care needs, and we think we can meet those needs.”
Also on the agenda is construction of a $50 million sports complex on a reclaimed surface mine—a project called Bear Mountain—to serve both students and community members.
Student retention at UPIKE has been improving, Webb says. “I think when I got here retention was in the low 40s [percent] overall; we are in the upper 60s now. But then if you look from the sophomore year on to graduation, we’re in the 80 to 90 percent range.” One thing Webb did to address the retention challenge when he became president was to change the administrative structure by appointing a provost to oversee multiple deans reporting to the provost’s office. “I really thought that a single leader who could approach the academic enterprise, student success, recruitment, and athletics could help us to unify those things and increase retention,” Webb says. “That model has worked extraordinarily well.”
Webb says it is important for leaders of small RSIs to accurately diagnose the roots of different challenges facing them. Some challenges arise from being a small institution, others due to being located in a rural area, and still others relate to being very remotely located, all of which can require different solutions. “When you’re both rural and remote, that can be a challenge unto itself,” Webb notes. “We are two hours from every interstate highway in every direction and two hours from any airport that has reasonable service. So we have travel difficulties, not just for someone in my job or the provost’s office, or fundraising, but travel difficulties for faculty members who want to serve at an institution like this.”
The needs of the region’s many first-generation students are yet another challenge, Webb says. “Whenever you are dealing with first-generation college students, you will have parents who may not understand what it takes to be resilient in college,” he explains. “Four years ago, we founded our Family Connections program on campus. We have a full-time director of Family Connections who provides support for families when the students run into a wide variety of issues.”
Webb says that while depopulation is a problem in many rural areas, “One of the things that is unique about Appalachia is the number of people who really want to stay in close proximity to family, to parents, and grandparents.” He adds, “We are here to serve those students. A significant number live at home because they’re within an easy commuting distance. They can come to campus, earn their degree, and work part time. Some of them even work full time while they’re completing their degree.”
UPIKE is working to provide more opportunities for students to stay in the area and use their education by creating several small startup businesses. One effort, fueled by a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce and a $1.5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant, is the planned UPIKE Ag Tech Innovation Center of Excellence. Once completed, this facility will include a greenhouse, classroom space, laboratory, and offices located off U.S. Highway 23. It will lead high-tech agricultural research efforts that aid the industry’s continued development and long-term viability while supporting worldwide demand for food production.
“Over the next three years, it is our hope that the project will help create 250 jobs and start several new businesses,” Webb says. RSIs must innovate, be entrepreneurial, and invest in cutting-edge fields of the future, he says. “My whole team is entrepreneurial,” he adds. “We’re trying to create systems and processes that the rest of the country should try to replicate. We don’t want to simply copy everyone else. We want to contribute to the innovation needed in rural communities.”
One such innovation concerned the high costs of textbooks. “After numerous meetings with faculty, staff, and administrators, we made the decision to move to open and accessible resources for all of our classes,” Webb says. “We knew it was a heavy lift for the faculty, so we actually gave them a stipend and all the training they needed. We had mentors to help them select textbooks, and our library was involved as well.” The initiative has saved students an average of $800 on textbook fees per year and has not reduced instructional material quality, Webb says. Sharing such insights is vital for rural institutions, he adds, noting, “The Appalachian College Association is now working to replicate what we’ve done with textbooks.”
Think Globally, Diversely, and Broadly
Tiffin, Ohio-based Tiffin University serves roughly 3,000 students in a small town of 17,000 in an area about an hour and 40 minutes from the airports of Columbus, Cleveland, and Detroit. The area boasts considerable industrial prowess, much of it tied to the natural-gas extraction business but also tied to agriculture, notes Andrew Felter, chairman of the Tiffin University board of trustees, an alumnus, and president of Webster Industries, Inc.
No single strategy will suffice for Tiffin, which has its finger in many pies, while taking care to ensure that it is not stretched too thin—a fine balance—notes Lillian Schumacher, president of Tiffin. For example, it has long embraced online learning, in part to serve populations in its region that are dispersed and diverse. “We were one of the first movers in this space when we launched our MBA program online in 2003,” Schumacher says. “About half of Tiffin’s student body today is traditional residential and commuter, and half is online, at a distance and/or graduate. Most of our online enrollment for both our undergraduate and graduate programs comes from our backyards: for the most part from Ohio and the states contiguous to us—Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, in particular. We also have students at a distance, in locations like Bucharest, Romania, where we have had our executive MBA program for over two decades and more recently, our undergraduate business degree as well. In addition, we have students in the Latin American region. Even with these expansions, our online enrollments are steady; we’re not growing significantly.”
Adds Schumacher, “Unfortunately, I do not believe there is one silver bullet for growth, for us or any RSI. Instead, we need to experiment and find what adds value and financial sustainability.” As for many RSIs, the challenge for Tiffin is to do more with less compared to larger competitors not in rural communities, she says. “We don’t have some of the big corporations, nor many of the larger industries that we can partner with at a time when partnering with corporations and organizations is a significant part of where higher education needs to go.” The institution has, however, adapted to serve the needs of its surrounding economy well, Schumacher says.
Tiffin offers businesses in its service area a caliber of employee talent that would not otherwise be present, says Felter, the board chair. “At Webster Industries, what I see from the students coming from Tiffin University is a more global, culturally diverse understanding of how the world works,” he says. “And graduates with these competencies are the ones who will be successful businesspeople, even in a not very diverse region like we have here in small town, rural Ohio. At Webster, we’ve been able to take advantage of many of the university’s resources, hiring several Tiffin University graduates for one, as well as establishing a supply chain base with one of TU’s professors some years ago that got us into the supply chain area in China and Asia.”
Transfer pathways are critical for many RSIs, and Tiffin is no exception. “If a student comes to us with a two-year degree, an associate’s degree, we accept every single credit, and they don’t have to take anything over and they don’t have to take something that they didn’t have. We accept that entire associate’s degree, and then they get their bachelor’s degree,” Schumacher says. “We tell them to finish their associate’s degree, that we’ll give them a scholarship for them to come to Tiffin University, and we’ll hold their spot until they have their associate’s degree. We have found those types of models to be very successful, giving us hundreds of transfers just from one community college.” Diversification of student recruiting is a key part of the playbook at Tiffin, Schumacher says, noting that “The enrollment cliff is only going to get worse.”
“Pre-pandemic we were focused on ways to diversify revenue. We have several strategic efforts in play today as a result. For example, in 2021 we partnered with AVENU Learning to translate and offer course content in Spanish and offer certificates, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees online in Latin America, and we’re considering doing the same with them in India to expand our global footprint and create a line of revenue that’s different and non-traditional.”
Explains Schumacher, “This partnership is an economies of scale model, meaning a pricing model where we have to have a lot of students to see significant revenue, but it does provide us with brand recognition [and] expands our reach globally; global growth that we wouldn’t otherwise have.” She notes the partnership has educated 324 Latin American students to date.
Tiffin also has a campus in Bucharest, Romania, and has a strong partnership with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education that at one time saw nearly 250 Saudi Arabian students attend Tiffin, Schumacher says. Nationally, partnerships include consortia of other colleges with online capacity that make online education more cost-effective.
Insularity is a danger for RSIs and that includes insularity at the top. It is important for RSI boards to be diverse, says Felter. He notes the conscious effort to make Tiffin’s board diverse, which has been facilitated by a series of board openings. “We’ve been more intentional with adding diverse members of the board to highlight the global reach of the university and also to respond to the different demands that are involved in board governance,” Felter says. “So we try to attract people from varying disciplines, and also other cultural and ethnic backgrounds, to keep diversity at the board level more representative of what the university really is from a culturally diverse student perspective. By looking outside the community for individuals who aren’t all alumni of the university, or all local business leaders like I am, we’ve attracted some folks that have different professional experiences, and in some cases even a global reach.” One is Danial Jameel, who is a Canadian-born investor and entrepreneur involved at the forefront of artificial intelligence. “Danial has exceptional professional acumen, including AI acumen, that really is timely,” Felter says.
For some public higher education systems that include RSIs with declining enrollment and funding challenges, consolidation and resource sharing form a large part of the way forward. Such was the case with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which in 2022 consolidated six largely rural universities into two regional ones, reducing the system from 14 institutions to 10 and reducing employment by an anticipated 1,500 employees. Some components of the six institutions, such as individual identities, branding, mascots, sports teams, and residential experiences, augmented by hybrid and online components, were retained.
The rural history and significance of the individual institutions were considered in the consolidation process, says Cynthia Shapira, chairwoman of PASSHE. “Most of our institutions are in rural areas and we are very, very aware of both the importance and the challenges of that,” Shapira says. “Our system came together from institutions that already existed and that were set up in rural regions in order to train teachers and to bring education to people that were starting to populate these regions, so they come by their mission naturally. Now, as we are reemphasizing workforce development and the challenges that poses in our rural areas, that very much has an impact on the way we think about our system. The goal in our integration was to make even more programs and opportunities available at institutions that were just too small to otherwise be able to support robust and vigorous programs at a full four-year bachelor-level program.”
PASSHE’s Mansfield, Bloomsburg, and Lock Haven universities, for example, combined into Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania, which has roughly 12,000 total students. Says Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of PASSHE, “The merger allowed us to take a PASSHE school like Mansfield University, for example, which, with enrollment of 1,800 students in 2021–22, could maybe sustain 30 academic programs and let them have access to like, 100.”
The controversial consolidation was part of a larger reorganization of the entire system designed to address tight finances and unlock more funding from the state, given that Pennsylvania is among the lowest in per-student state funding in the country and faced severe college enrollment declines. That strategy, which will allow PASSHE to reduce operating costs by $300 million over three years, has already helped garner more state financial support, notes Greenstein. Pennsylvania’s 2022–23 state budget invested $552.5 million in PASSHE, a $75 million increase from $477.5 million in the 2021–22 fiscal year. That was the largest single-year increase PASSHE has received from the state and will benefit students by allowing the state system to hold tuition flat for the fourth consecutive year, despite inflation.
The consolidation strategy is not without critics; Koricich of the ARRC is among them. Koricich questions whether the consolidations will improve enrollment and fears it could worsen declines and could also significantly reduce local employment and the attributes of the individual universities as economic and cultural hubs in rural areas with few other resources. He questions whether students at the most remote universities will have sufficient internet access for online offerings, or alternatively, will be able and willing to commute to access resources located at other institutions. He also questions whether there was sufficient evidence that the six institutions chosen for consolidation were the correct ones.
Greenstein responds that there was little choice given the dire economics of the individual institutions, which were at a very low threshold of enrollment viability. Sharing resources through the consolidations will help PASSHE avoid closing campuses, he asserts.
Greenstein and Shapira say now, with the immediate financial stabilization of the system addressed, efforts are turning to evaluating new sources of revenue and program offerings. PASSHE, for example, is in discussions with Google to offer Google Career Certificates. Selected PASSHE universities would embed the certificates into degree programs, as well as offer free short-term certificate courses to the public. The certificates would help demonstrate to employers the students are qualified for well-paying, high-demand jobs in data analytics, e-commerce and digital marketing, IT support, project management, and user-experience (UX) design, Shapira says.
Some individual PASSHE universities are also engaging in unusual business-oriented partnerships, Greenstein notes. The College of Business and Management at East Stroudsburg University, in Poconos, New York, offers 16 badges for hospitality, restaurant, and tourism management. The university uses employer feedback to align courses to the skills the industry needs. Shapira says it is important that members of the boards of public institution systems, who often are politically appointed, are thoroughly informed about financial models and enrollment levels and that members are willing to be active participants in decision-making aimed at harnessing the size advantage that public institutions sometimes can bring to implement system initiatives.
“I think big initiatives on a system level are the next step that we need to take at PASSHE,” Shapira says. “And we need to work with our PASSHE Foundation to do that, which we’ve never done before. So we’re thinking more strategically now.”
Community colleges in rural areas also face many challenges, says Jill Loveless, president of the Rural Community College Alliance (RCCA), an association of rural community and tribal colleges. The availability and cost of childcare are challenges, with a lack of accessible, affordable childcare facilities handicapping the ability of many students, particularly women, to take classes. Dependency on grants can be another challenge, Loveless says, noting that while grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program have been very effective for many community colleges, when the grant funding expires at many institutions the programs are difficult to sustain.
Loveless and Koricich both note that insufficient access to the internet is another challenge given the remote location of many rural community colleges and the economic disincentives for companies to build out communications networks in rural areas with sparse populations. Federal criteria for some rural aid programs, which sometimes include wealth and earnings components, are also a problem, Loveless says. One example is that the value of family farms is often considered in the economic resources of students, making them ineligible for grants even though the resources of such farms are tied up in fixed assets that cannot be accessed or leveraged to pay tuition.
Loveless says while her alliance does not have a playbook for rural community college success, it has provided resources through webinars on various topics posted on its website, Rural Community College Alliance – Creating Opportunities in Place (ruralccalliance.org), and also has counseled members on how to craft more-effective grant applications.
From One, Many; From Many, One
Beyond some general familiar challenges, it may be best to address the obstacles faced by rural-serving institutions by region, given that many institutions in a geographical area tend to face similar challenges, Loveless says. “In the middle of the country, the agricultural situation is a major concern,” she notes. “In the Southwest, a major concern is migrant students. How do you help ‘the dreamers’? In other areas, a common challenge is how to increase diversity.”
Loveless says some in higher education underestimate the importance of satellite campuses to rural communities, particularly the satellite campuses of community colleges, which often are the only higher education presence in a region. Beyond the education they provide, Loveless says, “They’re also a place of employment, they are a touchstone, they have community events, they are a source of pride.” She adds, “Many community college alumni I run into are very proud of that small campus they attended, and they talk about the professors there. It’s very significant to them. I think people sometimes forget this when they only see that maybe it’s losing money and it’s hard to sustain.”
Strategic alliances, mergers, and acquisitions are important options for RSIs, according to many experts. Tiffin University evaluates such opportunities regularly, President Schumacher says. “Understanding the dynamics of these potential partnerships is critical.”
President Novak notes St. Ambrose also has addressed such issues. Presentation College in Aberdeen, South Dakota, which was primarily known for its nursing program, closed in January 2023. Shortly before the closure, its leaders reached out to Novak to see if a strategic partnership with St. Ambrose could save the institution or allow it to operate as a St. Ambrose subsidiary. “They were very transparent in sharing their financials, and we did all of the math on this and really could not figure out a way to continue the model of having a fully on-campus experience with residence halls and sports teams for 600 students, which is what they were down to,” Novak says. “A little under half of their students were in nursing. Many of them were receiving content through an online [licensed practical nursing certification] and a bachelor’s in nursing program that was really rural-specific in its content, as well as how it was being delivered. Well, unfortunately, as schools start to falter, the resources you’re able to put into keeping those kinds of programs growing diminishes because you just have fewer resources available. So what we did agree to do was to, in a sense, acquire the program, and really give it a kind of new energy and bolster our efforts to recruit and reach rural America.”
In fall 2023, St. Ambrose will open the Nano Nagle Online School of Nursing and Health Sciences, designed to extend the reach of online nursing education across the country by offering flexible, online learning opportunities for working healthcare professionals, particularly those in rural America. The program builds upon a licensed practical nursing certification by enabling students to complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2.5 years or less, depending on credits previously earned. Students complete clinical rotations in their rural setting and use emerging technologies to perform skills checks. In addition, students periodically will go to a variety of rural locations for weekends to ensure competencies are being mastered in their rural setting. The endeavor will offer fully online LPN-to-BSN and RN-to-BSN degrees, in addition to offering the option for 25 additional industry-recognized certifications and credentials to support career advancement.
“This will allow students to stay in their small communities and still access the economic and social mobility of higher education,” Novak says. “We had 89 or 90 students from Presentation start in May, and another 30 to 40 will start this fall in this new program, with a huge number of students excited about getting into the program, because there is an appeal for those students to stay where they’re at and to be able to access a form of higher education that looks just a bit different.”
Beyond such programmatic outreach, there is a larger national rural conversation that is needed even within non-rural areas, Novak adds. “A fifth of the U.S. population lives in rural America, and you virtually hear nothing about the narrative of what’s happening in rural America anywhere,” Novak says. “For example, there are a lot of farm accidents in rural America, yet there is rarely a part of an [emergency medicine] curriculum that includes a farm-accident scenario. But our nurses [at non-rural St. Ambrose] see farm accidents a lot. We are leaving out a population that votes, that has legitimate needs, and that has specific concerns. And we are not attending to them,” she says. So even if an institution is in a more suburban area, as St. Ambrose is, Novak concludes that institutions still need to ask how they might help improve rural health or rural mental health or rural economic development—and be mindful that the answers might look different than existing approaches.
David Tobenkin is a freelance writer based in the greater Washington, D.C., area.