This paper examines 10 years of full-time and Pell-recipient enrollment trends, as well as six-year bachelor’s degree completion trends, at institutions identified by the Appalachian Regional Commission as serving Appalachia and at a sample of rural, broadly accessible institutions (BAIs) nationwide. Following a discussion of these trend analyses, we put forth implications for the field with regard to approaching future research in Appalachia and developing scholarship and policy on rural-serving institutions.
In recent years, researchers and policymakers have given more attention to the disparities that rural communities face, highlighted on the pages of bestsellers and in the speeches of politicians. In higher education, scholars have increasingly investigated the institutions serving rural communities, which has included efforts to define what it means to be a rural-serving institution. However, further scholarly conversations are needed about those institutions located in rural areas and how they compare to institutions located elsewhere, so as to advance understanding of institutions’ roles in addressing spatial disparities.
Other scholars have called for more research on the regions in which institutions are situated. Indeed, some regions of the country face more pressing needs than others. When calculated from the poverty threshold set by the U.S. Census Bureau, Appalachia faces higher rates of poverty (15.2%) than the rest of the United States(13.4%), including rates as high as 24.5% in the Appalachian regions of some states. As Appalachia seeks to reinvent itself following the decline of industries that once sustained the region, most notably coal mining and manufacturing, the region also faces an uphill battle to deliver education, specifically higher education, to a population that has historically not had a need to rely on it given the prevalence of industries that did not require specialized training.
The bachelor’s degree attainment in Appalachia stands at 76.8% of the national average. Only 22 of the 420 Appalachian counties had percentages of working-age adults who held at least a bachelor’s degree that matched or exceeded the national average, and all of those were either metro areas or were home to a four-year college or university. Meanwhile, the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree was less than 10% in 29 counties. This pulls into sharper focus the need for both access to and graduation from college for individuals in the region, as well as opportunities for skilled employment within Appalachia.
This paper seeks to address the gaps listed above by examining enrollment and degree completion trends of public, broadly accessible, four-year postsecondary institutions – or what we refer to as rural BAIs. We explore concepts of space, regionality, rurality, and their influence on the higher education experiences for students enrolled at these institutions. In particular, our approach includes comparing rural BAIs in Appalachia to a sample of rural BAIs nationwide, as well as comparing these institutions to other four-year public institutions in the Appalachian region that vary by selectivity and rurality. As a result of these trend analyses, we offer areas of future research about Appalachian higher education and rural-serving institutions, as well as implications we see for policy that our own analysis raises.
In regard to full-time enrollments, the first graph shows that both lines appear to trend in much the same direction and at the same rate; however, full-time enrollment at Appalachian schools remains 5-7% higher than rural BAIs nationwide. Similarly, in the second graph, Pell grant enrollments are higher at rural BAIs in Appalachia than those nationwide, representing alignment with the lower income and higher poverty rates of the region.
In the third graph, Appalachian rural BAIs have a slight edge over rural BAIs nationwide in completion rates among Pell recipients.Although the difference in Pell recipient graduation rates is rather small, it is possible that this finding reflects the fact that the Pell grant goes farther for students in Appalachia, as the costs of these colleges in Appalachia are lower than many other regions of the U.S.
In the fourth graph, it is evident that the overall six-year bachelor’s degree graduation rate is also higher at Appalachian rural BAIs compared to rural BAIs nationwide. This gap may be attributed to either of the previously mentioned results, given that full-time students have higher retention rates compared to those who attend part-time, Appalachian students are more likely to attend full-time, and the Pell grant may go farther for students at Appalachian institutions. However, it is also possible that rural BAIs in Appalachia are serving students in ways that warrant further investigation.
We then turned our trend analysis to Appalachia as a region, examining both those colleges recognized as rural BAIs and those not. In regard to full-time and part-time enrollments, as seen in the first graph, it was obvious that urban non-BAIs enrolled much higher proportions of full-time students, compared to rural BAIs and non-BAIs. This trend is not necessarily surprising as rural students may be more likely to have to work while in school to support their families due to coming from less-privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. However, rural BAIs also had higher full-time enrollments than other institutions still located in rural/small town areas.
Similarly, a noticeable gap emerged between those institutions located in city/suburban areas and those located in rural/small town areas (including rural BAIs), as rurally-located institutions consistently enrolled the highest proportions of Pell recipients. As expected, rural BAIs enrolled the highest proportion, given the inclusion of Pell recipients in the selection criteria for rural BAIs; however, the narrow gap between rural BAIs and non-BAIs indicates many similarities between these institutions.
When we turn to the six-year bachelor’s degree completion rates, both among Pell recipients and across all students, we see a different story, as rural BAIs continue to have rates well below that of other Appalachian institutions. Of particular interest is the performance of rural non-BAIs, as these institutions outperform both the rural BAI group and those institutions located in cities/suburbs in recent years.