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:
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.