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Community colleges combat enrollment crunch

Supporting the needs of dwindling high school graduates with less money to spend on higher ed
University Business, April 2017

Many small towns and rural regions rely on the nation’s 600 rural community and tribal colleges to provide employees who will keep local economies alive.

But these institutions, which also serve as cultural centers, face a range pressures in supporting the day-to-day needs of a dwindling number of high school graduates with less money to spend, says Randy Smith, director of the Rural Community College Alliance.

For instance, Sisseton Wahpeton College in South Dakota—where Smith is president—provides campus shuttle service to students who live as far as 30 miles away.

“It’s cheaper than losing them because they don’t have transportation,” Smith says. “Investing in a couple of minivans and doing a shuttle route has, for many colleges, been extremely effective.”

Other community colleges are building on-campus housing to eliminate the transportation problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers very-low interest, long-term loans for rural housing development.

Another plus: When students live on campus, they’re more likely to be involved in extracurriculars, which makes it more likely they will stay in school, Smith says.

Small colleges have also opened day-care centers, which, along with housing, can be hard to find in rural communities. Though potentially expensive to operate, the costs are outweighed by the gain in tuition dollars when a lack of child care doesn’t prevent students from enrolling, Smith says.

Such colleges do, of course, have to maintain their academic reputations. That means finding the money to modernize facilities and diversify degree programs—and attract and retain quality faculty.

With state reimbursements tightening, administrators must cultivate strong relationships with local legislators and community leaders—and taxpayers—who can help find additional funding sources.

Community relations is critical to the overall health of the college, Smith says. “You’ll never pass a mill levy without them.”

Administrators can build community support by opening up cultural activities to the public and hosting sporting events. For instance, a college basketball game in a warm local gym is a pretty good option on a January night in rural North Dakota when it’s 15-below-zero.

“Those communities have got to feel like the college is theirs,” Smith says.

Rural colleges are also looking beyond their communities for students—maintaining a presence at regional college fairs and letting students know how much money they can save, compared to enrolling in public four-year flagships.

“In Oklahoma, if I write on a big whiteboard that tuition at Seminole State College is $2,400, people will stop,” Smith says.


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor

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