Community Colleges as Change Agents in the Rural South

If you travel to the rural Ozark Mountains, you may be surprised to find one of the most dynamic postsecondary institutions in the nation. Located in Harrison, Arkansas, North Arkansas Community College, not only offers education beyond high school for an area that has limited postsecondary options, it offers programs that provide career counseling, assistance with accessing government resources such as housing and day care subsidies, and financial literacy and management training to individuals and families across the rural region it serves. NorthArk is just one example of the ways in which community colleges can help build an infrastructure of opportunity in non-metropolitan communities across the South.

Indeed, for many communities in the rural South a two-year college is the only postsecondary institution in geographic proximity to local residents—and as such, it can, or at least should, play a driving force in improving the economic health of a region. Among other activities this can mean preparing a region’s current and future workforce for job opportunities in the area or helping students pursue higher education opportunities elsewhere.

Of course, the challenge, like all those facing rural communities, is daunting. How does a community college fulfill its traditional role of preparing students for work if there is a lack of good jobs in the area? A recent analysis by the Daily Yonder showed that job growth in the nation’s rural communities is anemic compared to its urban counties: “The number of jobs in the nation’s largest metro areas (those with a million or more people) increased by about 2 percent, or 1.3 million jobs from June 2016 to June of this year. In all rural counties, however, job growth was a bit more than a tenth of that rate, 0.29 percent, or about 60,000 jobs.” And educational attainment in these counties remains far lower than in urban areas. The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that “the share of the rural working-age population (adults ages 25-64) with a college degree [including an associates degree] or higher was 14 percentage points lower than in urban areas.”

But if the South has traditionally held one educational advantage over the rest of the nation is the sheer number of community colleges in each state. In most Southern states, these two-year institutions’ reach is far and wide including in rural areas. Take a look at the counties with the highest poverty rates in each of the 13 states (in every one but Virginia, it is a rural county); in most cases, a community college provides services at a location within a 30 mile drive of the county seat. (Of course, rural transportation can in many cases make even that distance daunting).

Poorest Counties in the Rural South and Access to Community College

Source for poverty rate: US Department of Agriculture

Of course, not all community colleges are created equal and success requires leadership with the foresight and fortitude to respond to difficult challenges. But throughout our work, especially recently as we work with rural places across the South to build an infrastructure of opportunity, we remain convinced that these dynamic institutions at least hold the potential to address some of the biggest challenges facing rural communities.

We see a variety of roles that community colleges can, and in many cases do, play in assisting in improving the economic vitality and potentially increasing the economic mobility of rural communities.

Community colleges prepare individuals along the school-career continuum

The traditional role of preparing individuals, no matter what age (the average of a community college student is 29), for entering the workforce is of course at the core of any postsecondary institution’s mission. And increasingly, an associates degree is required to get a job that requires a family-supporting wage. For example, in a report on the Arkansas labor force commissioned by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, we found that 84 percent of openings that pay a family wage will require at least an associates degree compared to only 21 percent that require an high school diploma or less. Effective community colleges prepare students for either the workforce or to transfer to four-year institutions. And increasingly community colleges, including those in rural areas are working with their K-12 systems, to make sure students are prepared for the challenges that students will face when they enter the world of postsecondary education.

Community colleges partner with industry to train new and incumbent workers

Of course, preparing students for a job if there is no job to be found in a community is inherently problematic. Effective community colleges operate in constant contact with local industry to ensure that they are meeting the stated demand for skilled workers. And it is important that industry’s role not just be traditional industry advisory boards that meet once a year to listen to a PowerPoint presentation about programs at colleges. Effective institutions remain in constant contact with industry to understand their current and projected needs, along with getting the data support they need from state systems to understand industry growth patterns to see where new opportunities may rise.

And community colleges not only work with individuals who are entering the workforce. Community colleges can work with existing industry to train or retrain their workers to make sure their skills stay up to date. Again, getting involvement from industry at more than a perfunctory level is vital to ensure that the services offered through the college are meeting the needs of the community at large.

 While the two roles described above could describe the role of any community college regardless of location, you should remember that in rural areas, these colleges are the only post-secondary institutions that serve the area.  The next roles are ones that if not unique to rural community colleges are critical to building an infrastructure of opportunity for these traditionally struggling areas of the South.

Community colleges can be neutral convenors

One of the keys, if not the key to building an infrastructure of opportunity in a community is building effective community partnerships. But to build an effective partnership, a region needs a leader that is generally trusted by the broad community (residents, government, non-profit and private sector) and can have the capacity to rise to the challenge. And in many rural places, community colleges are the only institution that fits the bill.

When MDC rolled out its recent report on economic mobility in North Carolina, we traveled to communities across the state to not only report our findings but to start the conversation on how to create an infrastructure of opportunity. In each rural area we traveled to, we engaged with the local community college to contact a wide variety of individual to attend and participate in a real way in a new effort aimed at community change. An outside entity like MDC or even a less trusted or known local institution would not have commanded the response or participation did our community college partners in places as varied as rural Central North Carolina or the foothills of Appalachia.

Community colleges can provide access to more than educational resources

One of the most important roles that community colleges play in rural areas especially is reaching beyond just the students they serve to provide resources to the surrounding population. And continuing education is just one role that these colleges can play that might be lacking otherwise Let’s just look at two examples: improving a community’s residents fiscal well-being and its health.

Community colleges provide financial management and financial literacy training and support to communities where these services may not be offered. Phillips Community College and several other rural colleges in Arkansas, for instance, provides a wide range of services to both students and the community at large. These services can be as simple as learning to budget already tight finances to steering students and community members to needed public benefits that they otherwise not have been aware.

These institutions can also have a real impact in a region’s quality of life including enhancing health outcomes. For instance, MDC’s Healthy Places NC program through a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, is working with seven community colleges across the state to develop new strategies to improve healthy outcomes across rural North Carolina. Community college projects include offering a telemedicine site in rural McDowell County in the western part of the state and building walking trails on a campus in Beaufort in far Eastern NC campus that can be used by all community residents. In addition, community colleges often host health care navigators who can sign up not just students for health insurance but community residents as a whole.

The above four roles are broad and a lot can fall under these categories. And as stated, not all community colleges are able to provide these services to their residents. Many community colleges that serve rural areas have difficulty attracting the leadership and faculty necessary to meet their full potential. But as with all the challenges facing rural communities, there is great potential to rise to the occasion.

Does your community college meet the needs of rural communities in your portion of the South?  If not, what are the barriers you see?  Are they local or state in nature?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity in the Rural South: The Challenge and the Hope

I finally got up the courage to do it.  For six months, I had heard about the book rising to the top of the best sellers list and raising the hackles of my fellow rural policy advocates.  So I borrowed a friend’s Audible account (shh no telling) and listened to Hillbilly Elegy. Enough has been written about this at times elegantly written but extremely problematic book to take up the entirety of this blog’s existence but what disappointed me most about JD Vance’s memoir was the sense of hopelessness it conveyed about non-metropolitan America.  Mr. Vance’s own journey to success is indeed a powerful story of the importance of how personal mentorship and personal perseverance can lead to individual success. But for me it’s biggest failure as a work is its pessimism–the doubt it consistently casts on the ability of rural communities like his own to enact real change.  Times may seem dark for our less populated communities, but that doesn’t mean that the solution is to give up—these places have assets, that if tapped into, can revitalize a portion of our country that for too long has been neglected.

At MDC we believe the key to change in any community or region is building an infrastructure of opportunity, and the rural South is no exception.  As we say in our 2016 report on economic mobility in North Carolina this means “the myriad systems that must be improved and aligned to prepare ever larger numbers of [individuals] for family-supporting work and a better shot of economic well-being.”  This may look different in rural areas than it does in large cities, but it is the key to sustained, shared, economic prosperity.   Of course, in rural areas the definition of immediate success or improved economic well-being may be different than in urban areas with more apparent paths to prosperity.  Rural areas may, for instance, need to connect young people to jobs outside the region with the long-term goal of creating an economic environment that encourages their return.

Our past work in rural areas is helping us understand what an infrastructure of opportunity might look like in rural communities and importantly what non-metro areas consider a pathway to success.  Whether it is addressing rural leadership, improving health outcomes, or addressing job quality, organizations and philanthropy in rural regions are making real efforts to enact effective change in their communities.  For instance:

  • A health conversion foundation in Danville, Virginia working with a group of young adults to create as path forward for a small city that saw its manufacturing base disappear.
  • Rural community colleges in North Carolina developing new programs and services to meet the health needs of not only their students and faculty but also the surrounding community.
  • Communities across Arkansas embracing the challenge of “Expecting More” out of their communities and demanding that their economic fate not be tied to low-wage work.
  • Wilkes County North Carolina building on its history of entrepreneurship by bringing together businesses, the local community college system and the schools to create to education to career pathways.

The strategies described above not only show a variety of approaches, they show the diversity of the rural South. The challenges of isolated communities in Eastern Kentucky are often extremely different from those better connected to urban centers such as counties just outside the Research Triangle of North Carolina. And of course, as always issues of race are important differences across our region—the demographic make-up of the Ozarks of Arkansas is far different than a few hundred miles away than the Mississippi Delta.

Let’s look at health in rural communities as one example.  Each year County Health Rankings analyzes data from every county in the US. In each of the South’s 13 states the worst health outcomes (including how healthy people feel while alive and length of life) were in rural areas.

The table below shows each state’s county with the worst health outcomes for rural counties in the South alongside its racial make-up and its connectivity to urban areas.  You can see that nearly all white Grundy County, Tennessee with no city faces equally poor health outcomes as Robeson County, North Carolina, which contains a small city and an extremely diverse population.

Counties in Southern States Ranked Last
by Health Outcomes and Health Factors

BrounBlog2Note on rural classification: According to the US Department of Agriculture, “completely rural” means an urban population less than 2,500, “small town/city” means an urban population between 2,500 and 19,999. “Small city population” means a non-metro area with an urban population larger than 20,000.  “Metro” refers to a county classified by USDA as a metropolitan county

 Source for racial demographics: US Census, American Fact Finder. Racial percentage included if category is more than 5 percent of the population. In Duval County (TX) the white population includes those who do not identify themselves as Latino as well

Beyond health, an even broader indicator of well-being and prosperity (economic mobility) is often worse in rural areas.  Take a look at Wilson, North Carolina a small city that lies just outside in the prosperous Research Triangle Region.  Data from the Equality of Opportunity Project show that of children born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution in  the Wilson commuting zone, 40 percent will stay there as adults, another 32 percent will only move up one quintile, and only 3 percent will make it to the highest quintile.  The graph below shows this in reality in stark detail:

Wilson, NC Commuting Zone


Indeed, according to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, of the ten lowest mobility rural counties in the US, nine were in the South.

Despite these challenges, MDC believes that there are ways for rural communities to build an infrastructure of opportunity in regions and communities that are too often left behind   In our next post, we’ll look at the critical elements of an infrastructure of opportunity and how they are could be addressed in rural communities.  In every case, we want to emphasize the importance of developing and implementing strategies that are rooted in place—just as there is no one solution for the challenges facing big cities, there is no panacea for non-metropolitan areas.  And, we will also be looking to you—what does success in rural areas look like? For instance, is it the goal for all rural areas to find high wage jobs with career pathways for their young people in the town in which they grow up if those types of jobs are few and far between? Or is it to prepare them to find these opportunities elsewhere with the hope that they will return? Not easy questions to answer.  Some of those critical elements are:

  • The role of community colleges in enhancing rural growth
  • Engaging employers and the business community.
  • How social disparities in health can impact economic mobility and how systemic change can address it.
  • National, state and local philanthropy’s role in creating systemic change
  • How communities are addressing creating a trained workforce that can find better jobs in communities that often have seen those very jobs disappear.
  • Creating partnerships between businesses, schools and non-profits to ensure that the entire community benefits from any economic advancement.

Increased attention on rural America should not mean that we must choose working in this part of our country over addressing the real challenges facing metropolitan America.  It does mean that some of the same systemic change applied in our larger cities may also be possible in our less populated areas.  We’re looking forward to a deep discussion with you as we explore these issues.