An Innovative Fix for Rural Higher Education Deserts

Geography is a barrier to higher education for tens of millions of rural Americans. A few states have hit on an innovative solution.

After graduating from her rural Pennsylvania high school in 2005, Tesla Rae Moore did what many, perhaps most American high school seniors today expect to do: she left home for college with her sights set on a four-year degree. But when she was a sophomore in nursing school at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, the unexpected intervened: she became pregnant with her son.

“It was a high-risk pregnancy, and I decided to stop the program,” she said. Moore returned to her hometown of Kane, a community of about 3,500 nestled at the edge of the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. At first just intending to take a break, she ended up dropping out. “I was going to go back, and then it was just one of those things,” she said. “Life happened.”

Moore didn’t lose her desire to return to school; she just couldn’t figure out how to make it work as the years went by and her family grew. “I’m a single mom, and the only income earner, so I couldn’t quit my job to go to school,” she said. “And if I took classes all day, I’d have to work at night, and who would take care of the kids?” Given her work and family obligations, Moore couldn’t fit in college unless she could attend classes nearby. But getting to Pitt-Bradford, the nearest four-year school, required a round-trip commute of an hour and a half. The nearest community college, in Butler County, was a two-hour drive each way. Moore didn’t have that kind of time to spare. Online-only classes might have been a solution, but Moore felt she needed more structure to succeed. “Especially for somebody that’s been out of school, it takes a lot of discipline,” she said.

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A surprising number of Americans face the same problem Moore did. According to the Urban Institute, nearly one in five American adults—as many as forty-one million people—lives twenty-five miles or more from the nearest college or university, or in areas where a single community college is the only source of broad-access public higher education within that distance. Three million of the Americans in these so-called “higher education deserts” lack broadband internet, as well.

In the past, a dearth of colleges in a particular area might not have mattered as much. But as the full-time, four-year, residential experience of college becomes increasingly expensive and less attainable, and as more students must juggle work and family responsibilities, proximity to school could be the deciding factor in whether a student pursues a degree or, as in Moore’s case, finishes one. Meanwhile, online-only programs are still an imperfect substitute for in-person education. According to the Department of Education, as many as 70 percent of undergraduates in 2012 were “nontraditional” students in some way—such as by having delayed enrollment, having a job and/or children, or attending part time.

The impact goes beyond would-be students themselves. Communities that lack local universities and colleges also often lag in economic development, as they miss out on the spin-off start-up businesses and cultural amenities that institutions of higher education often create and that are increasingly necessary to attracting upscale residents and businesses. Growing up in an education desert thus not only makes it harder to attend college, but also means there are fewer opportunities for upward mobility in your hometown even if you do graduate.

Better access to higher education in rural America would help heal these inequities. It could improve rates of college going and completion among rural students, help area workers upgrade their skills, and boost local economic development by providing businesses with a pipeline for skilled talent. Rural students would also benefit by not being forced to leave home for college—not only lowering their education costs but also potentially slowing or even reversing the population declines currently plaguing rural areas.

But establishing a college or university in every rural area that needs one is a cost-prohibitive proposition. The distribution of colleges and universities is the result of politics, population growth, and historical accidents settled decades or even centuries ago. A few states, however, are pioneering a leaner, cheaper approach that relies on technology to create oases of learning in higher education deserts. Variously called “higher education centers” or “virtual colleges,” these innovative institutions provide physical infrastructure for existing colleges and universities to offer online and in-person instruction in places where no brick-and-mortar higher education institutions exist. In some areas, they also offer occupational training in line with the needs of local businesses and act as pop-up satellite campuses, community colleges, and training agencies rolled into one.

One of the regions experimenting with—and already benefiting from—this new model of higher education is rural northern Pennsylvania, where Tesla Rae Moore’s town of Kane is located. In 2014, Pennsylvania’s legislature authorized the creation of a “rural regional college” tasked with bringing greater higher education opportunities to an area encompassing 7,000 square miles over nine counties. Initially launched as the Education Consortium of Upper Allegheny, with a budget of just $1.2 million, the effort was rechristened the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) in 2017. (The legislature recently approved a $5 million total budget for the next three years.)

According to the Urban Institute, nearly one in five American adults—as many as forty-one million people—lives twenty-five miles or more from the nearest college or university, or in areas where a single community college is the only source of broad-access public higher education within that distance.

The NPRC does not feature a typical college campus. Rather than a single flagship location, the college operates six different “hubs”—physical mini campuses—scattered throughout the region, plus numerous “classrooms” using borrowed space from local high schools, public libraries, and other community buildings. The NPRC doesn’t confer its own degrees; rather, it provides the infrastructure for other accredited institutions to extend their reach through “blended” offerings combining virtual and in-person teaching.

The Pennsylvania initiative turned out to be what ultimately rescued Moore’s aspirations to finish her education. She became one of its first graduates, earning an associate’s degree in business administration from Gannon University, a private Catholic university based in Erie, Pennsylvania. Four nights a week, Moore drove to the local high school, where she joined her classes via videoconference. “We could see each other and talk to each other and had a real-time professor,” she said. She was also spared the two-hour trip to Erie, which would have been impossible for her to manage with her two young children and full-time job. The fact that she could take night classes meant she got to keep her day job and could find babysitting more easily.

Ultimately, Moore was able to jump from a job as an aide at a group home to a position in Northwest Bank’s corporate headquarters in nearby Warren. “I thought I was going to be hired as a teller in one of the branches,” she said. “Being enrolled part time got my foot in the door immediately.” For Moore, going back to school paid off. If more rural areas provided opportunities like the NPRC, it could lead to a lot more stories like Moore’s, and go a long way toward equalizing higher education access and, with it, economic opportunity in the places now being left behind.

Joseph Nairn, founding president of the NPRC, said the institution’s physical presence offers two benefits over strictly online schools. First, it provides the many students who don’t have broadband internet at home a way to get online. Second, requiring students to attend classes provides the structure many of them need to stay on track. “The model of having students come to a site and interact with teachers and students leads to better outcomes,” he said. “We are imposing discipline without requiring people to commute some ungodly distance or requiring people to pack up and move to a residential setting.”

Rural higher centers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia partner with other institutions to offer college and community college courses and, in some cases, occupational training, either under one roof or through a network of physical and virtual sites.

Moore agrees. “I know some people who have graduated from online schooling, but I know a lot of people who weren’t able to finish their courses,” she said. The NPRC “offers so much more than online school does, especially for somebody that’s been out of school. I had a time that I had to be in front of my professor, and I had a time when I had to go in for my test. It was a lot more structured, like traditional education.”

Similar models have been adopted by Virginia and Maryland, which have launched rural higher education centers of their own. Like the NPRC, these centers typically partner with other institutions to offer college and community college courses and, in some cases, occupational training, either under one roof or through a network of physical and virtual sites. The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, for instance, occupies two renovated tobacco warehouses in South Boston, Virginia. It offers classes through Longwood University and Danville Community College as well as occupational training in welding, IT, nursing, and “mechatronics,” an emerging field linked to advanced manufacturing. In Maryland, the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center offers specific courses from ten different institutions, including Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland.

For Michael Esdaile of Martinsville, Virginia, the opportunity to earn a degree was the door to stability in an area where good jobs are scarce. Originally from Connecticut, Esdaile moved to rural southern Virginia in 2008 with his wife and two children to help care for his ailing mother-in-law. Despite two years at the University of Pennsylvania and positions at several large IT companies, Esdaile didn’t have a degree. “I found myself looking for work with quite a bit of experience but no credential, which put me at a severe disadvantage,” he said. “I did security work and pretty much anything I could find.”

What turned things around for Esdaile was one of Virginia’s higher education centers, the New College Institute, through which he completed a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Virginia Commonwealth University. Like Moore, Esdaile attended a virtual classroom, teleconferencing with his classmates in Richmond, three hours away. He also attended in-person classes at New College Institute’s Martinsville facilities. After graduating in 2013, Esdaile immediately found an accounting job at the high-end furniture company Hooker Furniture, headquartered in Martinsville, where he has worked ever since.

For both Moore and Esdaile, continuing education was both affordable and convenient. The NPRC, for instance, charges students $185 per credit hour (and $60 per credit hour for “dual-enrolled” high school students who want a head start on college). “My entire two years was less than a year in the nursing program” at Pitt-Bradford, Moore said. Esdaile said his degree cost him a total of about $20,000—also less than the average sticker price for one year’s tuition, room, and board at a public university.

Another NCI attendee who lives near Martinsville, Taylor Morris, likewise cited the importance of cost savings. After two years of community college, Morris went to Longwood University, two and a half hours away, but came back home after a semester. “I could have made it away from home, but I decided it was nice to be home and be able to work,” she said. “I think if I had stayed, my debt would probably be triple.” In 2017, she finished her bachelor’s in education via NCI—from Longwood University—and accepted a job this year teaching fourth grade at a local elementary school.

Forest County school superintendent Amanda Hetrick, who is also an NPRC trustee, said that in her part of Pennsylvania (one county over from where Moore lives), as many as half or more of the students who leave for college come back home without a degree. “But they still all have the debt. They end up with two or three part-time jobs—at the gas station, the Subway, the hardware store. They piece together a living, but there are very few options,” she said. If they’re lucky, she said, they’re able to snag a job at the state prison in Marienville, one of the region’s biggest employers.

Hetrick hopes new institutions like the NPRC can help her former students build on the college experience they do have. “They have bits and pieces,” she said. “If we can get those bits and pieces together, we can get them to an industry credential or an associate’s degree.”

Better local access to higher education could also improve the chances of her current students succeeding in college, Hetrick said, by enabling kids to enroll in college courses while still in high school. One reason so many rural students drop out of college, she said, is that they are unprepared for the course work and the environment. “With dual enrollment, we’re exposing them to college-level work,” said Hetrick. “A lot of my kids are first-generation college-goers. They don’t know the language. When somebody says ‘Go see the registrar,’ they don’t know what that means.”

A final benefit of expanding rural higher education, in addition to improving individuals’ opportunities for advancement, is its potential to boost local economic development. In southern and western Virginia, for instance, the state’s higher education centers are helping to rebuild a region hollowed out by the loss of manufacturing and tobacco.

From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Halifax County, Virginia, saw multiple nearby factories shut down: textile maker J. P. Stevens closed its South Boston plant in 2000, and two years later the candy company Russell Stover and another textile manufacturer, Burlington Industries, followed suit. Meanwhile, the region’s once-prosperous tobacco farmers found themselves in losing fights against both China’s burgeoning tobacco industry and the U.S. government’s efforts to reduce smoking. Over just a four-year period, estimated current town manager Tom Raab, South Boston “probably lost $50 million in payroll out of the community” and another $50 million in lost tobacco sales.

As the region struggled to reinvent itself, it was handicapped by the lack of nearby colleges and universities that could lend intellectual capital, train workers in new skills, and help local business and community leaders plan new economic development. The region’s five higher education centers, however, are at least partly filling that void. Chief among these institutions is the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) in South Boston, which started life in a 500-square-foot trailer in 1986 but now occupies 100,000 gleaming square feet of renovated space in its two repurposed tobacco warehouses. In addition to traditional classrooms, SVHEC offers hands-on lab space for its welding, IT, and mechatronics students. Its nurse training facilities include several mock patient rooms complete with mannequins for practicing procedures such as giving injections and taking vital signs. Recently, SVHEC also opened an “innovation center” to provide manufacturing and consulting services to local businesses. Earlier this spring, the lab was developing prototypes of recyclable wine barrels for Virginia wineries.

In southern and western Virginia, higher education centers are helping to rebuild a region hollowed out by the loss of manufacturing and tobacco. The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center occupies 100,000 square feet in two repurposed tobacco warehouses and offers hands-on lab space for welding, IT, and mechatronics students.

Executive director Betty Adams said the center tries to tailor its course offerings to the needs of local businesses, and to help attract new industries. “We can be more innovative than a traditional institution of higher education, which means we can respond more quickly,” she said. “We’ve had industries come to us and say, ‘We can’t find the trained workers we need. We need you to help us.’ ” In 2017, Adams said, the center placed 173 students into new jobs.

Many of the center’s students, Adams said, are those for whom traditional schooling didn’t pan out. “We get people in here who’ve never had success before, but they get a credential and it helps them get a job or a better job and then they start thinking, ‘Wow, I want to come back and get another credential,’ and it builds on itself. That’s educational empowerment.” Adams and others caution that institutions like hers are by no means a panacea for rural students. So far, these institutions provide a limited array of courses and can’t substitute for the comprehensive offerings of a full-fledged college or university. And despite lower costs, affordability is still an issue for many students. The hybrid structure also means fewer support services for students who struggle.

Nevertheless, Northern Pennsylvania Regional College’s Joseph Nairn argues that by bringing opportunities for higher education where none had existed before, the model he is pioneering could be a boon to other rural areas around the country. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for this kind of education,” he said. “We’re not going to build a gym or a swimming pool. But if you want to get a good education and continue to work your job or stay in your community or take care of your kids, we can provide you with that opportunity. We represent the kind of radical innovation that higher education needs right now.”

Anne Kim

Anne Kim, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is senior fellow and director of domestic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.