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CAEL Pathways Blog

Supporting Rural Colleges and Communities

Fourteen percent of the United States population live in land classified as rural by the United States Census Bureau. While that is a small percentage of the people, that area comprises 70% of the United States, which is currently served by many community colleges and regional institutions. These rural and regional institutions (and often community colleges) play a prominent role in their communities' economic development. The colleges are often one of their region's biggest employers, but their graduates are also a valuable part of regional employers' talent pipelines. 

Rural institutions' support for their local communities is one of their strengths, and one of the reasons understanding these institutions is so important. Particularly as the population of the United States shifts from rural to suburban areas (Johnson, 2022), the importance of these institutions will continue to grow as these institutions provide vital services and resources for their communities. For example, rural communities often have high poverty levels and low economic and social mobility prospects for their residents - rural postsecondary institutions can sometimes be the place where residents can access training services, along with the wraparound support they need to succeed in such training.

Defining a college or university as rural is based on more than just location. A group of faculty members is working to raise awareness about the diverse factors that determine what makes a rural institution and how to support rural students. This project, a part of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, is focused on identifying and supporting the United States Rural serving institutions. The rural studies research aims first to clarify what exactly is a rural-serving institution by closely identifying not just the location and its classification but by determining if the institution provides vital resources to a rural ecosystem. 

In addition to identifying rural-serving institutions, identifying ways to support them and the communities they serve is essential. Institutions and community organizations have launched several new initiatives to help do just that. One such initiative has been the use of micro-credentials as a method to provide high-demand credentials to residents. Microcredentials are part of a rise in rise in short-term non-degree programs that provide knowledge and job skills. Microcredentials focus on showing expertise/knowledge of a particular skill. Once the skills have been assessed, a digital badge often indicates mastery. These badges can be displayed online via digital platforms, allowing employers to identify which skills applicants or employees have mastered. (Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO, 2020) Microcredentialing is common in the educational sector, and some have shown some promise in other fields, such as technology and manufacturing. Rural colleges are discovering that by offering these kinds of shorter-term, occupationally focused credentials, they can position themselves to offer even greater value to their region's economic development and labor market needs. 

So how can rural institutions ensure the success of this kind of offering? According to the findings from Digital Promise's initiatives, partnerships between institutions, the local workforce community, and the chamber of commerce are key. Digital Promise highlighted four successful rural credential programs across the United States and identified these partnerships as one of the critical components of a successful program (Tinsley et al., 2022). They helped employers identify and experience the connection between the local institutions and the benefits of the microcredentials offered. 

The four microcredentialing programs Digital Promise researchers looked at expanded access to jobs and social mobility to rural communities and indigenous and communities of color in Kentucky, Georgia, Maine, and Tennessee. They found that these programs can offer a starting point for institutions and communities to positively alter their communities' ecosystem and offer additional guidance for rural communities and their community partners. 

The work of Digital Promise and the AARC's Rural Serving Institutions Projects are just two steps in helping to redefine and understand the importance of colleges and universities in the rural communities and how they can shape the ecosystems and change the economic and social mobility of the citizens that reside there. 


Bauer-Wolf, J. (2022, February 1,). How does higher ed define a rural-serving college? https://www.highereddive.com/news/how-does-higher-ed-define-a-rural-serving-college/618056/

Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2020). Design, Assessment, and Implementation Principles for Educator Micro-credentials. (). Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://ccsso.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/Micro-credentials%20-%20Design%20Principles_FINAL_1.pdf

Johnson, K. (2022). Rural America Lost Population Over the Past Decade for the First Time in History. University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy,

Koricich, A., & Fryar, A. H. (2021). The Critical Role of Broad Access Institutions in Serving Rural Communities. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003097686-6

Tinsley, B., Cacicio, S., Shah, Z., Parker, D., Younge, O., & Luke Luna, C. (2022). Micro-credentials for Social Mobility in Rural Postsecondary Communities: A Landscape Report. Digital Promise. https://doi.org/10.51388/20.500.12265/151

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