The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

In Martinsville, Virginia, if you need training for a better job, if you want to make more money or if you want to get a college degree, you basically have one option: enroll at Patrick & Henry Community College.

In rural Southern Virginia, the next closest public option, another community college, is 36 miles away. 

Because of this, Patrick & Henry has an outsized responsibility to make sure workers are trained for good jobs, said Greg Hodges, president of the college.

Through times of economic peril and economic progress, the region has relied on the college to keep up with rapidly changing labor needs and update its education and training offerings so that the two align, Hodges said.

“We jokingly but truthfully say, we give all kinds of awards and credentials, whether it’s the associate’s degree or industry-recognized credentials, but really we award the J-O-B degree, because that’s the heart of our mission at the college,” Hodges said. 

As happens with Patrick & Henry, economic development and job training is often the primary responsibility of community colleges in rural areas.

And it should be, according to a report released this spring from the Aspen Institute on College Excellence.

In order to best serve students, the report recommends that rural community colleges develop pathways to economic mobility; partner with community organizations to create greater opportunities for students; and convince students to enroll and stay enrolled in college.

The report explained that economies in rural communities can be driven by various factors depending on the surrounding region. In open-space areas, the local economy is often driven either by agriculture, tourism or recreation, or by energy and mineral production. A community may have an economy driven by jobs such as public safety, education and health care, or one  driven by the exploration of emerging or evolving industries, such as advanced manufacturing.

While rural communities can have many challenges – such as lack of funding, skepticism about education, enrollment changes related to geography – David Bevevino, the director of research and knowledge management at the Aspen Institute, said the report’s authors had tried to focus on the ways that these colleges can leverage their small size, central community role and diverse student body to achieve their goals and support their students.

“It’s obviously very important to be aware of your situation and things you struggle with,” he said. “But if you don’t also pay attention to, and sometimes center, the things that you have strength in, that can be limiting.” 

In rural communities with limited access to education and training opportunities it’s especially important that education be connected with the workforce, and that people see that connection and understand how going to school could help them earn more money, the report says. 

Bevevino said that people are “hungry for economic mobility” and that colleges need to help people understand the value of an education and build partnerships with local employers in order to ensure that value for students.  

With the understanding that rural communities have different economic drivers based on what surrounds them, the report called on colleges to develop academic programs that connect with existing jobs, and to push to establish new industries in their area so that students can be trained for in-demand jobs.

At Lake Area Technical College in South Dakota, for example, new programs don’t get approved unless administrators find that students would be able to get good jobs in the region after graduation, the report found.

And at Patrick & Henry Community College, administrators have been working with local industries to improve training for open jobs, while also trying to make space for new employers to enter the region. The college partnered with Chambers of Commerce in two nearby jurisdictions to develop an eight-week entrepreneurial incubator program to help community members start their own businesses.

But it’s not enough to build the business partnerships and pave the career pathways, the report said. These colleges need buy-in from the community in order to make the greatest impact. The report said colleges need to work within their communities to make sure that the potential value of college is well understood, despite whatever preconceived notions, stereotypes or skepticism about college exist.

That could mean holding education sessions to demonstrate what an industry like advanced manufacturing looks like today (totally different from the manufacturing jobs of the past), or targeting certain demographic groups and hosting special information sessions just for them, the authors suggested. Colleges should also consider how they can connect with students early, the report said, whether through dual-enrollment partnerships with nearby high schools or by providing guidance on college prospects to local high schoolers.  

These colleges, which often have strong “place-based” identities, should also be responsive to their cultural histories and the needs of community members, said Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the nonprofit American Indian College Fund.

Rural community colleges and tribal colleges both often serve a mixture of rural students who are indigenous and not-indigenous, Crazy Bull said. It’s critical for these colleges to acknowledge all the needs of the student, beyond academic and career, she said. Like community college students in any setting, rural students often juggle full-time work and family responsibilities with their education; many also face unstable access to food, housing and transportation, which can create even more obstacles to obtaining a degree.

The dual mission of tribal colleges, Crazy Bull said, which is to prepare students for careers while also caring for their community and revitalizing and upholding cultural knowledge, is generally shared by many nontribal rural community colleges that are hubs in their regions. 

“The majority of people who live in rural environments want to stay in rural environments, just like native people want to stay in their communities,” Crazy Bull said. Although economic impact is important, she added, “Community colleges have a powerful, social and cultural impact.”

This story about rural community colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.