Guest Post | What does it mean for higher education to be rural located and rural serving?

Recently, both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education reported on research that is working to identify and define institutions of higher education that are rural located and rural serving.

In this week’s blog, Dr. Casey T. Jakubowski responds to and offers critiques of these efforts, questioning who the work really serves. Offering insights from his own experiences as a student and faculty member in institutions that would bear these labels, Dr. Jakubowski asks important questions that seek to nuance the discussion and further refine the proposed metrics for identifying rural institutions of higher education.


Dr. Casey T. Jakubowski

Reading the recent Chronicle of Higher Education report and Inside Higher Education articles on research into higher education and rurality, I was at first elated that two significant think tanks were examining the very question of what defines  a rural and/or rural serving institution. After all, in the United States, scholars have yet to truly define, and in many ways understand, what rural is. For scholars, general media reporters, and everyday folks, definitions of rural – whether people, culture, or place – are hard to explain. Is rural defined by geography? By economy? Do the politics or sociology of rural areas make the difference? Scholarly acrobatics in several disciplines have, for many decades, demonstrated that answers to these questions are not easy to come by, and even harder to communicate to the general population, as well as our own field! 

In the elementary and secondary research realm, I have staked my path to exploring the whats, whys, and hows of rural educational history, policy, and community implementation in my blog, and my books. And I’m not alone. Many other scholars in rural education have worked to bring attention to the wealth of knowledges and cultures and ways of learning and being that exist in rural places. Here’s a brief list: 

Educators, specifically, practitioners involved in day-to-day rural schooling, know that their work is place-based–rooted in their students’ and their lived realities. As a rural educator who came to the practice through a fluke of employment, I saw first-hand the differences in rural communities. Living in New York State, which is perceived as a metro state, but has vast open rural spaces, I saw how hardworking and dedicated teachers used limited resources to implement outstanding programming and opportunities for their students. Reading in the popular press, and some education trade works, I see a continued drumbeat of negative, deficit reporting which does not consider the wonderful work being done to support students across the various regions of rural America. All of that –the vast and robust current scholarship and practical daily lived experiences for elementary, secondary, and teacher educators unfortunately seems to be missing in the two works that inspired this response.

Thinking through these reports, I have a few concerns. The majority of which revolve around the measurements used to identify rural serving institutes of higher education, especially, that the approach seemed to be exclusively geographic in nature. Both reports indicated that rural serving institutions (RSI) could be identified by how rural their communities were. Since they are founded on a measurement of the rurality of a community and neighboring counties that is limiting, and frankly stereotypical now. While I understand the need to identify the place of a college, and the influences of place on an institution, the measurements used by these reports seems to profoundly limit and disregard so many other factors that rural education scholars, sociologists, political scientists, and historians have investigated for decades. Although the Chronicle of Higher Education report, centers education, especially rural education, as critical to a community, it makes certain assumptions that warrant critical examination:

Rural serving institutions are often cornerstones of their communities, convening people of diverse backgrounds and hosting cultural events. These colleges are staples across the United States but are easily overlooked because the knee-jerk way to identify them — whether the campus is based in a “rural” area, as opposed to what kind of community it serves — is not sufficient, the researchers say.

Both central points of this quote are problematic because they make assumptions about who the colleges are serving and how. For example, in all four of my college experiences, the institutions were rural situated, but urban- and suburban-centric in their recruitment, training, and research foci. One example, SUNY Oneonta, a comprehensive college located in one of the more rural counties in upstate New York, recruits many students from the two suburban Long Island counties, the five boroughs of New York City, and the four downstate, metro counties of Rockland, Westchester, Putnam, and Orange. Its education department, then, is populated by a significant number of the students from suburbia or urban areas who eventually plan to return to their sub/urban homes. So, although SUNY Oneonta is located within a defined rural geographic region itself, the majority of students it serves are sub/urban who plan to leave the rural Oneonta community once they’ve finished their education. In this way, the institution may be rurally located but isn’t necessarily rural-serving, illustrating how a purely geographic approach to defining rural-serving institutions doesn’t account for important complexities. 

The notion of the college as a “community cornerstone” also seems a bit overstated. While rural colleges do provide lectures, performances, exhibitions, and resources, I wonder what percentage of their rural communities utilize these resources? From my own experiences, I have found that there are clear divides between the town and the gown, referencing the age-old division between institutions and communities. Except for the community education classes, and some more popular presenting artists and sporting events, for the most part, the local community members most engaged with the college are residents who are faculty, staff or administrators, or their spouses and children. Having an NPR radio station located at the college diversifies the airwaves and creates a much wider range of music available within the area, but overall community folks see college students as a necessary consumer group who add to the commercial shopping opportunities rather than culture of the area. While colleges and universities situated in rural areas most definitely hold the potential opportunity to be a community cornerstone, in my experience, that hasn’t been the case, and I’m wondering how these institutions could do more to engage the community in partnership. 

The report in the Inside Higher Education publication details the research structures and indicates:

The researchers combined five metrics to classify over 2,500 institutions on a 0-to-4 scale, from less rural serving to more: the percent of the institution’s home-county population classified as rural, the average percent of nearby counties’ population that is classified as rural, the population size of the home county, how far the home county is from a metro area, and the percent of the institution’s total awards conferred in agriculture, natural resources, and parks and recreation. Any institution that scored above the average result on the four-point scale was classified as rural-serving.

Of the five metrics presented in the research, four are geographic in nature. Likewise four of the five metrics utilize a perspective that Greg Fulkerson and Alex Thomas describe as urbanormative, or the basing policy and research on urban environments as the norm and most desirable. In the United States, census descriptions of what is rural have defined the rural as the “not urban” which continues to center urban places and experiences as the stick against which all other kinds of places are measured. So, even though the report is working to define rural located and rural serving institutions, they are doing so in a way that still privileges urban places.

Likewise, the Inside Higher Education report centralizes geography as the primary focus for  researchers, policy makers, and philanthropists. One researcher indicated 

Hillman’s team identified and mapped colleges in rural areas, including additional educational programs that give a sense of how and where higher education is delivered. For example, users can look up rural community colleges, four-year universities and trade schools, or they can locate programs offered in prisons, on military bases, at community agencies, in hotels and so on. “It’s training and programs for many different locations happening in these places that are actually exciting to think about,” Hillman said. “Programs meeting students where they are.”

This is a great start, for sure, and more inclusive of outreach, but again very geographically defined. Although it seeks to show the resourcefulness of rural people and communities, this measure still doesn’t account for the ability of people to move across spaces and the likelihood that although these institutions are located in rural areas, they may not be serving rural students and communities. 

I am also concerned that the research into rural serving schools identified only three types of degree programs as one of the five characteristics of a rural serving area. Only considering agriculture, natural resources, and parks and recreation degree programs in their metric is significantly limiting towards what rural communities do. Not all rural areas and regions contain the geography and resources for such programs. Furthermore, assuming that resource extraction, including agriculture, and recreational use of lands is a guaranteed marker of a rural place is, again, extremely urbanormative. The metric does not account for some significant, and frankly, precise research which indicates that rural areas have, economically more than resource extraction and recreation as centered occupations. Rural area occupations, according to Laughlin (2016) indicate that education, health care, and social services occupations represent over 20% of employment. If military and public administration are included, the percentage nears 30% of employment. The addition of arts, construction and entertainment brings occupations to almost 40%. An additional 20% of employment positions includes manufacturing and retail. Extraction industries, according to the report represent around 10% of rural employment occupations. The exclusion of so many majors and programs is difficult to understand when the diversity of occupations is so great.

In my opinion, rural serving institutions should be defined by much more than location. Programs, research, and people should be included in any index. So, for starters, how many rural situated colleges, and their faculty rarely work with local community members or other rural communities? Do rural community members believe that the institution contributes to their community in a positive way? Are programs at the college designed to include rural students, and provide beneficiary experiences and opportunities? Do academic programs prepare students for urban or suburban based careers, or do they create place-based experiences, and highlight local, rural knowledge? Finally, do research, publishing, grant, and service activities define, report on, and highlight more than just the dominant deficit narrative of rurality to expand and bring complexity to rural research? 

While these two reports may signal a start to recognizing rural places of higher education, more work is needed to develop metrics that represent the complexity and nuance of rurality currently missing in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education  reports. As U.S. society dwells on divisions – political, economic, social, educational, and digital, we need to focus on specific, and nuanced research techniques. For more than 20 years, in my personal career, the continued rural deficit narrative, and the geography-centric definitions of what rural is continues to confound me. Why, and how does the narrative allow work founded upon oversimplified definitions of rural or rural stereotypes to continue to see publication while more complex and nuanced work remains pushed to the margins? Who do these metrics really serve?


Author Bio

Casey Thomas Jakubowski is a 20 plus year professional in education. Casey is the founder of CTJ Solutions LLC, a strategic consulting firm with expertise in data, planning, improvement, and curriculum development. An author of two books , Thinking About Teaching and A Cog in the Machine, by Edumatch publishing, as well as over 20 peer reviewed articles and presentations with a focus on rural education, civics, social studies, and improvement. Dr. Jakubowski has taught at the higher and secondary education levels. He has also served as a state leader in school improvement and curriculum studies. 

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