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Rapid Adaptations Keep Rural Colleges Afloat

Higher education institutions in rural areas face an uphill battle. Hurdles include lack of high-speed internet, higher poverty rates than suburban and urban settings, little-to-no public transportation, difficulty in attracting specialized faculty or filling courses or programs, and a sensibility that higher education may not pay off in a "one-industry town." A three-page brief from thinktank MDRC recapped a number of "rapid adaptations" educators are making to address the unique challenges faced by rural populations — especially now, when schools are delivering courses remotely.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the digital divide. Rural areas often lack the broadband needed for remote instruction. To address that in the short term, several colleges have updated course modules and web pages to be more mobile-friendly, so that students can access classes on their smartphones. Some schools are also providing devices to students and families, efforts funded through foundation funding and emergency aid dollars. Several communities have repurposed unused school buses as mobile hotspots, which can be driven around to provide internet. In one Alabama program, students can take "minicourses in the parking lots."

Longer term, MDRC wrote, "rural colleges are finding ways to support local entrepreneurs and create effective programs that will generate local jobs." For example, a West Virginia college has made entrepreneurship a priority, to help students "think about how technology can be applied to agriculture, tourism and other local industries."

Colleges are also working with their communities in setting up telecommuting hubs to help graduates stay home while "pursuing high-wage remote work."

Schools are also promoting dual enrollment programs to strengthen students' ties to home colleges, exploring multi-campus collaborations to keep the doors open and developing remote or hybrid faculty positions.

MDRC ended the report with an invitation for institutions to join a learning exchange specifically focused on serving rural communities. For more on that, contact Alyssa Ratledge at [email protected].

The brief is openly available on the MDRC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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