America’s rural communities, and the colleges that serve them, are finally receiving much-needed attention. The last 20 years of educational reform often failed to embrace rural community colleges, considering them at best an afterthought or at worst subjecting them to unfounded stereotypes. While the newfound consideration of these communities and their educational partners started before COVID; the outbreak of the pandemic has cast a spotlight on the economic, health, and educational disparities that have plagued small communities across the country for decades.
According to the United States Census Bureau (2017), 60 million people, or approximately 1 in 5, live in a rural part of the country.
Just how many people and colleges are there in rural America?
A significant section of the nation’s population lives in rural America, although the exact number depends on the metrics used. According to the United States Census Bureau (2017), 60 million people, or approximately 1 in 5, live in a rural part of the country. However, the Rural Community College Alliance (RCCA) indicates that its member institutions serve more than 89 million people residing in rural America.
The U.S. Department of Education, relying upon data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), puts the number of rural community colleges at a meager 260 while RCCA places it somewhere between 600 and 800 colleges. Researchers with the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC) identified more than 1,000 rural serving institutions representing 46% of public 4-year institutions and greater than 50% of public 2-year colleges.
Supporting rural colleges to promote national economic health
Regardless of the number of individuals living in rural America or the count of the community colleges defined as “rural serving institutions” (RSIs), there is universal agreement that the nation’s economic health must include the citizens who live in the parts of the country that make up 97% of its geography.
This is why organizations including:
- American Association of Community Colleges
- Association of Community College Trustees
- Achieving the Dream
- National Center for Inquiry and Improvement
in addition to many federal and state entities, are partnering with philanthropic organizations to implement strategies assisting the institutions educating and training rural America.
“These colleges are critical engines of workforce development and support the overall well-being of their communities and are often expected to carry out their mission on constrained budgets” (Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, 2022, p. 6).
Community colleges are often the anchor institutions in rural communities, playing critical roles in workforce development, health and well-being, and cultural vibrancy. In short, America’s economy needs rural communities to thrive, and many rural communities rely upon their community colleges to make this happen.
Changing the playing field: Patrick & Henry Community College
That is certainly the case for Patrick & Henry Community College in Martinsville, Virginia. Once known as “The Sweatshirt Capital of the World,” the region served by P&HCC was a 20th century manufacturing powerhouse. Textile was king, and furniture was queen with many corporations housing their national or international headquarters in Martinsville City and Henry County.
However, the late 90s and early 2000s forever altered the landscape of the community as company bankruptcies combined with expanded international free trade agreements ushered in a period of economic devastation. Unemployment rose to 24.9% in 1990 and remained in double digits for 15 years, earning the region a new moniker, “The Unemployment Capital of Virginia.”
Thousands of displaced workers were able to utilize Trade Adjustment Assistance funds to enroll at Patrick & Henry Community College and complete certificates and associate degrees to prepare for jobs that leaders hoped would soon arrive. Regrettably, these students were faced with the harsh reality of not only losing their jobs but also completing degrees for positions that simply no longer existed in the region. Many people left the area, leading to a shrinking tax base, numerous school closures, small business deterioration, and increased opioid addiction. It is a scene that’s been repeated in far too many rural neighborhoods.
Thankfully, the last 10 years have witnessed a dramatic transformation for this community with Patrick & Henry Community College positioned in the middle of what has been rightfully branded as the region’s “Economic Renaissance.” Changes in leadership allowed the college to become an active partner in large scale economic development.
In the 2010s, the shift was palpable as local headlines began focusing on companies once again moving into— rather than out of— the community. This work accelerated dramatically in the last 2 years as 3 major companies (Press Glass, Crown Holdings, and SCHOCK GmbH) announced a combined $273 million in investments bringing 698 jobs with family-sustaining wages to the region.
Most of the economic development pitches within the last 5 years have directly involved the college’s Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology Complex. Referred to locally as the region’s “Crown Jewel of Economic Development,” this multi-building facility boasts 103,000 square feet of space and houses mechatronics, robotics, industrial maintenance, industrial engineering, electronics, welding, precision machining, and industry 4.0 training.
The facility also houses the motorsports program, branded as “The Racing College of Virginia” thanks to its proximity to the Martinsville Speedway, a popular stop on the NASCAR circuit. In addition, it has a flex space designed as a location where companies can train their potential workforce while facilities are being constructed.
America’s economy needs rural communities to thrive, and many rural communities rely upon their community colleges to make this happen.
Entrepreneurship training leading to community recovery
At the same time, the college has also partnered with the Martinsville-Henry County (MHC) Chamber of Commerce to craft a very successful program to help create or expand small businesses in the region. Over the last 4 years, even during the height of the pandemic, MHC Startup (for new businesses) and MHC Grow (for existing businesses) graduated 231 individuals from this multi-week, entrepreneurship boot camp. From this group, 52 new and expanded businesses have been awarded $204,750 in cash and in-kind funding, leading to the creation of $3.56 million in new capital investment and 190 new jobs.
In a community that is approximately 35% people of color, more than half of the businesses created through these efforts have been minority owned.
Community college meeting the needs of rural students
The economic renaissance experienced in the region served by Patrick & Henry Community College has led to 2 important shifts within the institution. Like many community colleges, this college witnessed a downward turn in traditional academic enrollment. However, a significant increase in short-term workforce development (or non-credit) credentials means that the college is experiencing an enrollment realignment as more non-traditional learners look to reskill or upskill. Just as community colleges have always done, the institution must now pivot to ensure that it’s meeting the workforce demands of its citizenry, many of whom are accessing the college in a new way.
The second shift is an enhancement of the equity work that underpins the fabric of the college. Because of Patrick & Henry Community College’s long relationship with Achieving the Dream, equity has been central to the college’s improvements for nearly 2 decades with a focus on initiatives designed to improve the success of all students in terms of enrollment, retention, completion, or transfer to 4-year institution. A new pillar has materialized as economic mobility becomes a crucial measure of success for the student, the program, and the college.
What is economic mobility?
Economic mobility is the ability to improve one’s economic stability often involving procuring a job with family-sustaining wages.
This North Star of lifting students and their families out of poverty underpins what the college means when it says, “Everything we do is workforce development.” Students don’t enroll at Patrick & Henry Community College for an associate degree or an industry recognized credential (IRC). They enroll with a desire to obtain the J-O-B degree, and Patrick & Henry Community College is positioned in the center of the region’s economic wheel to make good on the promise of access to the American Dream for all people living in this rural community.
- Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. (2022, January 31). Introducing our nation’s rural- serving postsecondary institutions. https://www.regionalcolleges.org/project/ruralserving
- Rural Community College Alliance. (n.d.). Supporting rural community colleges and their students. https://ruralccalliance.org/
- Rush-Marlowe, R. (2021). Strengthening rural community colleges: Innovations and opportunities. Washington, D.C. Association of Community College Trustees. https://rural.acct.org/
- United States Census Bureau. (2017, August 09). What is rural America? https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2017/08/rural-america.html