Is Part-Time Education the Future for Rural College Students?

Cortez Deacetis

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

Two-fifths of college students are 25 or over. And two-fifths work full-time. Nationally, 7.5 million of the nearly 20 million students enrolled in colleges and universities for fall 2020 were going to school part-time

That part-time reality is especially likely to be true in rural regions, where the average student is older, and poorer, and only 1 in 5 adults over 25 have a college degree.

That means, for a large number of rural students, higher education means part-time education. 

We have known that the “typical student” has been trending this way for years.

Yet many colleges still focus on degree programs that can take years of full-time study, a serious time hurdle for working adults. 

Many of them require a litany of pre-major courses, and often students see little direct connections between those initial classes and the careers they’re pursuing.

That’s often the opposite of what many students are asking for, in the face of mounting student debt, tuition, and living costs.

These students want more skills, more training, more flexible education options, and more direct career application. 

These students are not going away. In fact, they may soon be “the new majority of students,” as Arthur Levine, a president emeritus of Columbia University’s Teachers College, said in a recent roundtable hosted by the University of Phoenix.

Are schools actually adapting to their needs?

More Rural Higher Ed News

V.R. in the Ozarks. Arkansas hopes to give as many as 4,500 residents a hands-on look at new career options, using a virtual reality program launched with the help of the simulation-based training company TRANSFR. The partnership with the Arkansas Office of Skills Development and Arkansas Community Colleges includes a VR glimpse into careers in everything from manufacturing and hospitality to public safety and automotive shops. 

  • Why It Matters: Rural students often don’t have the same opportunities to “test drive” careers, due to geographic and financial constraints. Tech can solve some of those challenges, and many of the students already using the program are from rural or otherwise under-resourced communities across 15 sites hosting the TRANSFR technology.

UC Santa Cruz Adding 100 New Faculty. The California land grant university nestled between Silicon Valley and coastal Monterey is planning to make its largest faculty increase in its 57-year history, going from its current roster of about 585 faculty members to nearly 700. That hiring — plus an estimated 200-250 retirements and resignations that will need replacing over the next decade — could lead to a sea change as Santa Cruz aims to build a faculty that is 25% Latino, American Indian, and Black by 2032 (its student population is currently 4.6% Black and 25% Latino). 

Addressing the rural lawyer gap in Maine. Maine lawmakers have proposed a bill that would establish a three-year pilot program for a handful of University of Maine School of Law students to spend a semester working at a legal aid clinic in rural regions like Arastook County, where it can take two or more hours to travel to the next courthouse.

Rural Outreach

Marlene Tromp is president of Boise State University in Idaho, where 83% of counties are rural. 

In 2020, Tromp launched the university’s Community Impact Program, where employees physically went to those communities — in one case, setting up shop at a local farm — to ask which degree programs would be most useful to them.

Boise State used that feedback to develop a hybrid approach that included meeting faculty in person locally and forming local cohorts while attending classes online throughout the semester.

The rural outreach — in one case, the first meetings took place at a local farm — inspired engagement far beyond just those people in the program.

While many rural areas in Idaho saw steep college enrollment declines during the pandemic, “in those cities where we planted roots, there was a 25% to 56% increase,” Tromp says.

Recently, the University of Colorado-Boulder and Colorado State started offering four-year engineering (and other) degrees at smaller, rural, partner campuses, employing a dozen or so instructors to live in those areas as well.

Dr. Marlene Tromp, President of Boise State University (Photo by Priscilla Grover/Boise State).

Simply showing up makes a difference in the Rocky Mountain West, where barely half of rural Colorado high school graduates enroll in college, and distances between campuses can exceed 100 miles or more.

Still, those types of programs focus on bachelor’s degrees that take years to finish — and the evidence suggests that’s not always a great investment for rural working adults.

As economist Richard Vedder writes, only about 36 of every 100 students who enroll will both graduate within six years and earn a job that pays better than someone with a lesser education, such as a high school degree. 

Sure, college graduates do, on net, earn about $350,000 more in lifetime earnings after accounting for the “opportunity cost” of not immediately entering the workforce and other factors, according to Kiplinger.

But the average rural student’s economic profile means they are more likely to have their college interrupted or derailed by an unforeseen expense.

Put another way: They are even more likely to not be among the 36 of 100 that make it.

Shortening the timeframe may help: 13 pilot institutions, led by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota in Rochester, have committed to explore the idea of adding three-year bachelor’s degrees

In Georgia, major hospital networks partnered with various nursing schools and colleges to streamline dual enrollment programs, so that credits earned in high school would automatically transfer from institution to institution.

That makes it easier for rural students to graduate in less time, saving them money and making it more likely for them to earn certificates that directly lead to employment. 

Plus, a number of state university systems are offering affordable virtual courses — with tuition costs in the low-hundreds — for classes training skills like photography or graphic design, for example. 

Largely rural states like Arkansas and Louisiana are going an extra step by recently launching databases that make it easy for residents to see what classes they may be able to take without being fully enrolled. 

Even More Rural Higher Ed News

Rural stopout students get support. Sacramento-based Project Attain!, which works to help students who have paused their education re-enroll and finish their secondary degrees, was one of five rural partnerships selected by CivicLab to participate in a two-year initiative to improve higher ed and workforce systems. Each receives technical assistance, training, and direct financial support to help create “pathways to prosperity” for rural, low-income learners.

Farm co-op gives nearly $1M to rural colleges. Compeer Financial’s Agriculture and Rural initiative is giving $825,000 to community and technical colleges across the farm credit cooperative’s 144-county territory across Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The funds are being used to help develop the ag workforce, with one community college using its $25,000 gift to buy a John Deere tractor.

Pitt increases rural outreach. The University of Pittsburgh has seen a 57% increase in applications. Marc Harding, Pitt’s vice provost of enrollment, credited regional recruiters in rural areas as a significant driver, with as much as a fifth of Pitt’s students coming from counties Pennsylvania defines as rural.

For poorer, older, Americans, whose margin of error is smaller, there is simply a higher cost for being wrong on their big bet on college.

For them, taking college part-time is a risk management decision — lessening the damage if it doesn’t pan out.

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.

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