Five researchers met on Twitter in 2020 and came up with a goal: Define what it means to be a rural-serving college. Months later, they launched an advocacy and research organization that’s challenging Capitol Hill leaders to rethink how they evaluate and fund rural and regional colleges.
They want rural colleges to be front of mind year round — not just during campaign season — when lawmakers decide how much money to give institutions. Outside of election years, the institutions “have not been a primary focus” when it comes to policy, according to the new Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, which launched in 2021 when it published its first report.
The Higher Education Act, for example, mentions development grants for rural-serving colleges, but it “still has no funding appropriated,” said Andrew Koricich, executive director of ARRC, which is based out of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
The key legislation that governs how federal higher education programs are administered “has no definition of what it means to be rural-serving, and so if we’re not using existing policy mechanisms to actually help these campuses, then talk is cheap,” Koricich said.
On Monday ARRC unveiled a first-of-its-kind metric to determine rurality beyond a college’s location and push the future architects of HEA reauthorization to allot more money to rural-serving institutions. ARRC, which is not membership based and aims to plug the research gap on what is known about the institutions, is considered the first research and advocacy group that solely focuses on rural and regional colleges.
In the organization’s second report, published Monday, ARRC identified 1,087 rural-serving institutions, often called RSIs, in a tool that uses a new metric to define the institutions. The report, first given to POLITICO, also shows the intersectionality of RSIs: One-third of historically Black colleges and universities, 18 percent of high Hispanic-enrolling institutions, 93 percent of Tribal colleges and universities, and 94 percent of high native-enrolling institutions are rural-serving.
Other key findings include 83 percent of postsecondary institutions located in low employment counties are RSIs. More than two-thirds of the institutions located in persistent poverty counties are also RSIs.
While the institutions have smaller average enrollments compared to non-rural-serving colleges, they enroll a large share of Pell Grant-eligible students and a higher percentage of Native American/Alaska Native students.
With the report, ARRC hopes to add an additional metric for policymakers to define rurality beyond where institutions are located, which is a primary method for identifying them, though definitions from states and the federal government vary.
“By and large, the only conversation about rural is: ‘OK, we know where an institution is, and that’s how we’re classifying them,’” Koricich said. “What gets lost are institutions that may not be in a place formally classified as rural, but are doing important rural service and this is because … there’s no agreed upon definition.”
An agreed upon federal definition could lead to more equitable funding, the researchers said.
The variability across definitions often leaves out institutions that provide services to rural populations and places, including “large land-grant universities and regional colleges that exist on the suburban fringe of more urbanized areas,” according to the report.
ARRC Policy Director Vanessa Sansone said a better definition for RSIs could help spur policy advocacy similar to what’s happened for HSIs, tribal colleges and universities, or historically Black Colleges and Universities, which have federal designations.
“Similar to those particular institutional designations and classifications, we think there’s an opportunity to have that conversation,” she said, adding that it could highlight the funding needs for “institutions who are truly serving these rural areas.”
The first phase of ARRC’s work, however, will be on “educating policymakers to also consider the needs of rural colleges,” Sansone said, so that policy does not marginalize rural colleges.
“Individuals have limited information when we think about rural areas and rural people, rural counties and rural colleges,” she said. “These places also have assets that are getting overlooked.”
The researchers, who are also the directors of the center, include: Koricich, an associate professor at Appalachian State University; Sansone, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio; Alisa Hicklin Fryar, a professor at the University of Oklahoma; Cecilia Orphan, an associate professor at the University of Denver; and Kevin McClure, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“We believe the best way to support these institutions is to increase our understanding about them,” Koricich said.
ARRC has received grants from the Joyce Foundation, Ascendium Education Group and Lumina Foundation for projects including research, white papers and development webinars that will be rolled out this spring.