04/17/2012 06:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2012

The Future of Higher Education in Rural America

A student the other day was receiving instructions about what documents to present when he wanted to apply for college -- birth certificate/passport, shot records, transcripts, any previous educational certificates, etc. After the presentation, he came forward and sheepishly confessed, "I hope this won't be a problem for me getting into school and all, but I have been a huntin' and a fishin' all of my life and I just never have been shot before."

Welcome to rural America. And welcome to this blog about higher education in rural America. My name is Stephen Schoonmaker and I am president of College of the Ouachitas in Arkansas, the Natural State. I will be your guide and commentator on this journey through rural life and higher education today -- and what I envision about the future of both in today's society.

Rural America is where, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 16 percent of the country's population lives; this is a far cry from the 72 percent who lived in rural areas a century earlier (for the math challenged, that would be in 1910). Concurrently, the amount of land mass in this country that is considered rural is also in decline as both major urban, urban cluster, and rural residential areas continue to sprawl and consume areas formerly considered pristinely rural. Still the percentage of America's rural land is far greater than its population, with over 70 percent of the country's land mass still defined as rural.

So what does this mean? And why is it important to you? Several points to consider:

  1. The rural American communities depicted in 20th-century Norman Rockwell portraits of America (think Saturday Evening Post -- oh, don't know that either? Google it!) are fast disappearing. For many living in small communities around the country, they wonder if they have one foot in the grave already. It used to be you could get a high school diploma and go work in a mill or plant in town and make a family wage. Today those jobs don't exist, and those communities with any remaining jobs now require higher level skills than just a high school education. Two-year colleges like College of the Ouachitas offer rural communities a chance to gain those skills and retain these more technologically demanding jobs.

  • Young people are leaving rural America for urban areas. This is not to be confused with young people wanting to sow wild oats and be independent from the influence (and over-protective supervision) of parents. Many of the students at the College start their education with us because:
    • the tuition is less expensive,
    • they get to attend smaller sized classes for their freshmen and sophomore general education coursework,
    • the faculty actually teach instead of graduate assistants, and
    • the transition from high school to college expectations is a smoother experience at the local two-year college.

  • They move away to go to a four-year university to gain some "real world" experience. Once they are gone, they often don't return; not always because they don't want to, but because they can't find good entry-level work in their rural hometowns. College of the Ouachitas, like many others in higher education, is developing partnerships with four-year universities and offering more online courses.
  • Rural communities are concerned with the "brain drain" of young professionals and their families leaving us along with the young adults. I speak with neighbors daily about how their adult children, now with young families of their own, want to move back to the community but they can't find family wage professional career opportunities. College of the Ouachitas, along with more than 100 other two-year colleges across the country, has committed to invest in local entrepreneurship to counteract this trend.
  • The decline of available workers has led more companies to move away from rural areas as well; attracting new industry becomes more challenging with the lack of an available workforce. College of the Ouachitas is working closely with local economic development efforts to revitalize our rural communities' infrastructure (I will explain the DREAM approach in a subsequent post), train a local workforce, and rejuvenate local business; when these efforts are successful, attracting new business to the area will be more promising.

    Despite these challenges don't start writing rural America's epitaph quite yet. As you will see in subsequent posts, plenty of life remains in small towns. New opportunities, like the ones I allude to above, are emerging in a rural America primed by resurgences in rural higher education (e.g., returning to the roots of our successes as two-year colleges) and the relevant workforce development and training we provide.

    Do these beliefs make me an Optimist? Pragmatist? Realist? I'd rather say I'm a Ruralist. More to come.