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Making the Case for Rural Community Colleges

Attracting and retaining rural community college students

Rural community college students face a unique set of challenges. They live in homes with less technological access, travel long distances to school, and come from communities that are economically struggling (Garza & Eller, 1998). Prospective rural community college students struggle to overcome these obstacles on their own. They report having difficulty finding child-care and reliable transportation, and also obtaining financial aid (Bell, Rowen-Kenyon, & Perna, 2009). They also identified several other related issues that make a college education appear out of reach, including not owning a computer, not having a strong high school GPA, and not having parents who also attended college (Scott, Miller & Morris, 2015).

Further compounding these problems, is the fact that prospective community college students in rural areas are often uninformed about the college process. A systematic study has also shown that a particular hurdle for prospective college students in rural communities is a lack of information or guidance about the college process (McKinney and Novak, 2013). They are likely to have limited access to important information about the college, like the value of education, admissions deadlines and financial aid opportunities. This is unsurprising given that they are often the first in their families to attend college.

Evening the odds: Supporting rural community college students

Overcoming all these issues will require a multifaceted approach. This includes support and transition services for new rural community college students, improved public primary and secondary schools, and more financial aid solutions like the Pell Grant and state funding. Many of these are outside of a college’s control. However, community colleges can improve remedial academic classes for struggling students and provide wrap-around support services for new students. They also can create an outreach and recruitment plan that compensates for the general lack of information about the value of a college degree and the college process.

The expense of remedial education

Remedial education services are an expensive outlay for students. According to the report Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High school Student Achievement on College Affordability, low-income students are not the only ones taking remedial classes. Rather 45% of rising college students taking remedial classes are from middle, upper-middle and high-income families in a broad range of college sectors. Only 57% of these remedial students were enrolled in a public community college. In the 2011-2012 school year the collective cost of these courses was nearly $1.5 billion.

How needing remedial education affects community college students

It is inarguable that the financial burden of remedial education falls most heavily on low-income and first-generation college students. Although high-income freshmen at private universities paid the most per student for remedial courses in the 2011-2012 school year, these students are better able to bear the expense. Moreover, remedial courses rarely count towards a degree, making higher education take longer, and they negatively correlate with retention. Full-time community college students are 12 percent more likely to drop out after taking a remedial course. Those that complete their degree take an average of 6 months longer to graduate.

Wrap-around support for rural community college students

The data suggests that for rural community college students, especially those from areas with failing public schools, remedial education will be an expensive and unavoidable opportunity cost. Rural community colleges should therefore make these classes pedagogically excellent. Along with providing strong remedial education services, colleges may need to support students in these classes with wrap-around services to improve retention, like on-campus childcare. They could also insist students have more contact with tutors, academic advisors and financial aid counselors. These kind of transition services may improve outcomes for underprepared, low-income rural students.

Breaking through the information gap

Since prospective students in rural areas are less likely to have information about college enrollment financial aid, and the value of a community college education, community colleges must bridge the gap. In the 2007-2008 school year about 42% of college students who were eligible to receive a Pell Grant didn’t even fill out a FAFSA (McKinney & Novak, 2013).  Most traditional advertising and marketing methods, like targeted ads, billboards, or TV spots will not make up for this lack of awareness. It’s impossible to attract prospective students in rural areas who don’t understand the value of the education or how to access the necessary support services to enroll in school.

Content marketing and rural community colleges

Consequently, colleges must provide clear, timely and relevant information about degree programs, career opportunities, financial aid, and enrollment deadlines. This is the best way to increase enrollment in rural areas. Given the overriding concerns rural community college students have about finances, highlighting other sorts of assistance the college can provide, like subsidized health benefits or childcare, will also be important. Digital articles or a print magazine that can be shared with a prospective student by friends, teachers, or relatives are the best way to distribute this kind of information. This is the content marketing strategy.

Making the most of your marketing budget

Since rural community colleges draw from a smaller pool of prospective students than colleges in big urban centers, they often have small marketing departments as well. It might seem like they can’t handle the demands of a big content marketing campaign. However, your college doesn’t need to produce unique content on its own. With access to our deep content library, your marketing department can pull articles about issues relevant to their prospective students and personalize these articles for the local market in a very short amount of time. A single person in your marketing department can put together an entire magazine in only a few weeks.  If you’re interested in seeing how this might improve enrollment at your rural community college, contact us for a demonstration today.



Bell, A. D., et. al. “College knowledge of 9th and 11th grade students: Variation by school and state context.” The Journal of Higher Education, 80 vol. 6, 2009, p. 663-685

Garza, H., et. al. “The role of rural community colleges in expanding access and economic development.” In McGrath, D. (Ed.), New Directions for Community Colleges, vol. 103, San Franscisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 1998, p. 31-41

McKinney, L., Novak, H. “The relationship between FAFSA filing and persistence among first-year community college students.” Community College Review, 41 vol. 1, 2013, p. 63-85

Scott, Shanda, Michael Miller and Adam Morris. “Rural Community College Student Perceptions of Barriers to College Enrollment.” Academic Leadership Journal. vol. 3, 2015

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