More Students and Not Enough Space: Rural Community Colleges Discuss Challenges

February 24, 2010

Rural community colleges are the fastest-growing of all community colleges in the United States, but they face many challenges as they expand, a group of community-college leaders told Education Department officials and Congressional staff members on Wednesday.

Their remarks came at a "Rural Community College Day" meeting convened by the Education Department and the Rural Community College Alliance. It was the first time the Education Department has met specifically with rural-college leaders, department officials said, describing community colleges as a "linchpin" in President Obama's quest for the United States to have the world's highest proportion of adults with college degrees by 2020. Rural colleges make up 64 percent of the nation's 820 community-college districts, according to data from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and are often in areas in which few adults have college degrees.

But granting degrees to more students, which would be necessary if the Obama administration is to meet its goal, will present challenges, the college leaders said (see related chart).

"It's depressing to see that the bulk of the dollars go to our urban and suburban counterparts," said Randy Smith, president of the alliance, an advocacy group based in Oklahoma.

The Education Department hoped the meeting would show community college leaders that rural institutions are included in the Obama administration's plans, said John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach. Some of the presidents expressed concern at the meeting that they were often left out in policy discussions related to community colleges.

Limited Resources

Community-college presidents from a number of predominantly rural states described problems they are facing as more students enroll and their colleges attempt to start new programs. Though all community colleges are suffering as states nationwide tighten their budgets, rural community colleges must deal with special challenges, the college leaders said.

Expenses that might seem paltry at other institutions, such as facing a bill of $55,000 to replace a computer lab, as one rural Arkansas community college is, can prove insurmountable, the college officials said. In small towns, there are few opportunities for partnerships with private businesses. Faculty members are paid less. And even when rural community colleges do obtain grants, they are often functioning at capacity, so they have nowhere to put students or equipment for new or expanded programs.

In Grants, N.M., a two-year college received a federal grant to start a program focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That kicked off a shuffle, as several other programs moved from one room to another so a lab with the necessary plumbing would be free.

"You're assuming that we're prepared with facilities," said Felicia Casados, campus executive officer of New Mexico State University at Grants. Government grants should take those needs into account, she said.

Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, called for Congressional hearings on rural community colleges and asked the Obama administration to revive programs that were cut under President George W. Bush, including regional seminars in rural areas that help community colleges apply for federal grants.

An increase in Pell Grants, Mr. Katsinas said, is "the single most important federal action" the government could take to expand access to higher education for all rural Americans.

The college presidents emphasized the importance of community colleges for rural America and described new programs they have started. Despite having more students and less money than they did in previous years, they said, they are starting new programs, including ones focused on preparing workers for growing industries such as health care and aerospace engineering.

"Our funding streams are very, very limited," said Blair Montgomery, president of Pierpont Community and Technical College, in Fairmont, W.V. "We are invisible. But we get the job done."