Rural community colleges outnumber suburban and urban campuses, and rural community college students are the fastest growing group, too. New year-round grant opportunities appear to be drawing even more rural adults back to school.
Enrollment at U.S. community colleges is at an all time high. This trend, beginning well before the current recession, reflects both record numbers of high school graduates and the need for adults of all ages to obtain training and retraining to meet a changing job market. Total U.S. community college enrollments jumped by 2.2 million or 30% in just five years, from 2000-1 to 2005-6.
It may come as a surprise that the community college system is, on balance, more rural than urban. According to an analysis of federal enrollment data for academic year 2005-06, of the 860 community college districts in our nation, 553 or 64% were rural. These rural community college districts enroll 37% of all two-year college students, while urban community colleges enroll only 31%.
And rural community colleges are growing faster than any other type: they grew faster (over 1 million students, a 42% increase) than urban (21%) or suburban (27%) community colleges in this same period, 2000-2006. Here is strong evidence of rural America’s “pent-up” demand for degrees and lifelong learning.
But a desire for postsecondary education is not enough: you have to have the means. And for this reason the Pell Grant, the federal government’s main scholarship offering for low-income undergraduates, is now the single most important human-resource development program for rural America.
Bevill State Community College, a four-campus community college district that serves a sprawling, sparsely populated area of west-central Alabama, is run by one of the more effective rural community college presidents in the country, Dr. Anne McNutt. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Bevill State’s Carrollton Center in Pickens County to meet with Ed Davis and Marty Wiseman from the Stennis Institute of Government from Mississippi State University (Carrollton is exactly halfway between our two universities).
Pickens County, straddling the Alabama-Mississippi border, is one of the poorest counties in the United States.
It did not take long to see that something unusual was happening here. Long lines of students snaked through the hallways, a rare sight in Carrollton. They had come to sign up for the first-ever summer portion of the year-round Pell Grant program; their presence attests to the impact this program makes in rural students’ lives.
Under the old Pell Grant system, students could receive funding for college education in two of three sessions: fall, spring and summer. The new system allows funding in all three terms.
My Bevill State colleagues reported that across Bevill’s four campuses and outreach centers (Carrollton being one), 2,630 students enrolled in Summer 2009; 36% of them, more than a third, received Pell Grants. As of last week (additional enrollments will come for the later summer session) Summer 2010 enrollment was 3,038, an increase of 408 students or 13% over last summer. And of this summer’s students, 1,647 have Pell Grants, including 520 on the new year-round Pell Grant. Recipients of the newly extended Pell Grant account for a large portion (more than 1/6th) of Bevill’s record Summer 2010 enrollment.
The result has been particulrly evident in Pickens County. Total Summer 2009 enrollment here was 169 students, of whom 106 or 63% received Pell Grants; preliminary Summer 2010 enrollment data (which is certain to rise) shows a record 249 enrolled, of whom 189 or 75% are Pell Grant recipients. That three of every four Pickens County students are on Pell Grants shows the startling importance of the new year-round program.
Prior Education Policy Center studies for the Rural Community College Alliance and the MidSouth Parntership for Rural Community Colleges reveal that rural community college students incur roughly 6 of every 10 loans among all first-time, full-time U.S. community college students, to overcome rural America’s well-known barriers of transportation and child care. Given the rapid increases in tuition and flat funding for Pell in the decade prior to 2006, the dramatic increases in Pell Grant aid contained in the ARRA stimulus legislation in February 2009, and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, which created the year-round Pell Grant, are truly exciting.
It is too early to determine the full impact of the extended Pell grant, but our visit to Bevill State provided a strong early indication: the year round program appears to count for much if not most of Bevill State’s expanded total enrollment.
For young adults in Pickens County, which in the first quarter of 2010 suffered a 14% unemployment rate, 189 lives will be positively impacted by expanded funding. Students waiting in line told me that, without the year-round Pell Grant, they would not be doing anything this summer. There are just no jobs available.
Even at this early stage, the sight of students clamoring to enroll for higher education demonstrates the positive difference this vital program makes in helping community college students obtain the education and training they need to have better lives. And if this is the experience in one of the poorest counties in our country, it is likely happening across the country as well.
Rural America’s stake in expanding Pell Grant funding cannot be overstated. This program expands opportunities and changes lives, and will help our nation increase the number of Americans with baccalaureate degrees. Simply put, it’s the most important, effective human resource development program our country has, one that’s vital for rural renewal and innovation.
Stephen G. Katsinas is Director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. He also serves as Chair of the Rural Scholar’s Panel of the Rural Community College Alliance, and is President of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges.