RSI data tool sets out to define and stimulate investment in rural higher education

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile markers, a bimonthly Open Campus newsletter on the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.


The question of what is rural is not just esoteric. Its definition — or rather its lack of it in politics, especially at the federal level — has profound ramifications for who goes to college, who graduates, and how easy it is to access key services.

Now researchers are offering answers.

The Alliance for Regional College Research (ARRC) recently released the results of a year-long effort to establish an “RSI score,” the first metric to identify colleges serving rural areas. The ARRC has also released this interactive RSI data tool to sort schools by RSI score and other factors.

The RSI score takes into account five factors: the size of the home county’s population, the percentage of their home county and adjacent counties defined as rural by census data, their proximity to a metropolitan area, and the percentage scholarships from each college’s program spent in the zones. agriculture, natural resources and parks and recreation departments.

  • There are 1,087 RSIs: This number includes 46% of all public four-year colleges and more than half of all public two-year colleges.
  • Many are diverse: About a third of HBCUs qualify as RSI, as do 18% of institutions with high Hispanic enrollment and 93% of tribal colleges.
  • Most are in economic difficulty: More than two-thirds of post-secondary institutions in counties with low employment and persistent poverty are RSIs.
  • They are more dependent on state funding: RSIs tend to receive a larger share of their income from state appropriations compared to other public institutions and have higher endowments per student.

These takeaways are useful on their own. But the real value of efforts to define rurality will be to finally give lawmakers a compass to guide rural investments — Appalachia State professor Andrew Koricich, executive director of the ARRC, says it’s already led to a meeting with a US senator’s educational aide.

“Part of the power of this is that we’ve done the hard work of conceptualizing and identifying these institutions,” says Koricich, which federal and state governments, as well as nonprofits, can then use to lead the funding.

Defining the rural is a delicate process. But models like this, which consider multiple factors, allow us to assess schools through different lenses of rurality – the inclusion of agricultural finance as a factor expands definitions of rural outreach, for example .

The ARRC study aimed to broaden the national understanding of rural service beyond campuses in rural areas. And that follows a companion December report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which went further by mapping where rural college courses are offered, including surprising locations such as military bases and college lecture halls. ‘hotel.

Studies are “like salt and pepper shakers: you use different ones for different reasons,” says Koricich — the former helps define institutions, while the latter helps dig deeper into how education is actually delivered in areas. rural.

More news on rural higher education

From 9 Nations to 55. In 2020, the majority of Tohono O’odham Community College students attended classes at its remote campus on the edge of the Sonoran Desert along the Arizona-Mexico border. But while many rural colleges lost students, it nearly doubled enrollment, with 927 students from 55 tribal nations, thanks in part to free tuition offered supported by federal aid received during the pandemic.

Milk it? Lactation experts recently appeared in suburban Atlanta court to fight a Georgia law that required practitioners, many of whom are women of color with decades of experience, to complete two years of college courses and 300 hours supervised clinical work before educating others about breastfeeding.

  • Why is this important: Lawmakers say more education is needed to help improve health outcomes in Georgia, which has the sixth-highest infant mortality rate in the nation – but experts say such prohibitive measures only serve to limit access to necessary medical care, especially in rural areas with more limited resources.

Need childcare. The Hechinger Report published a look at childcare deserts and how filling them could be a boon for rural working parents, reporting from Troy, Vermont, a town of fewer than 2,000 people along the border. Canadian.

Whatever methods you use to define it in more detail, it is clear that rural discourse is finally getting the zest it has long needed.

Define the landscape

The ARRC’s ROI data tool offers a ton of potential for researchers and policymakers looking to more easily identify institutions in need of investment.

For example, experts looking to identify colleges that serve the nation’s poorest students could use the slider to include only those with 75% or more of students receiving Pell grants.

This research instantly shows that a large portion – around 40% – of these institutions are located in a single stretch of the Deep South, from Georgia to Louisiana.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison report paints a different picture, focusing on where education is offered in rural communities.

Researchers found that correctional and medical facilities, military bases, community organizations such as fire stations, and even private businesses and hotels were listed as teaching sites for colleges.

These unconventional sites, covering about 16,000 sites listed as “additional locations” across the country, accounted for about 42% of all teaching sites in rural areas, compared to 37% in non-rural areas.

Data on unconventional settings — such as the boardroom at the local AmericInn, or even workplaces like Walmart or McDonalds — is limited.

“We have no idea how many students are participating in these programs,” says Nicholas Hillman, author of the Wisconsin study. And in some cases, these offers may not even be active anymore.

Yet the presence of such programs could suggest a number of things.

More information on rural higher education

Breaking the digital divide. Oklahoma State University and AARP Oklahoma are running a fascinating project at five rural libraries, connecting residents to digital navigators to help them with everything from using smartphones to posting homemade crafts on the Facebook market.

Climate change. A group of researchers have found that current methods of teaching about climate change in rural areas, focusing on the depth and conclusiveness of scientific evidence, may not be effective – instead calling for a change to address the identities, politics, culture and economies of rural students.

No “Maus”! After his East Tennessee school board decided to ban the non-fiction Holocaust graphic novel MausWhitney Kimball Coe faced a situation many rural people know well after being asked to speak on national television – how to toe the difficult line of exposing poor behavior by local leaders while avoiding fostering stereotypes about the community she loves.

On the positive side: perhaps these services lead to an education system that better brings lessons directly to where rural students are already going.

Or, the negative: Such unconventional locations could be exploited by companies seeking to access federal student aid through Pell Grants, without actually conferring meaningful degrees to students.

Further research needs to be conducted to determine the strengths and weaknesses of rural education as it currently exists.

Either way, the ARRC and UW-Madison studies do important work in defining the modern landscape — the necessary first step for further insights to come.


This article first appeared in Mile markers, a bimonthly Open Campus newsletter on the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to receive future editions in your inbox.

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