Jesus Marquez considered going to a four-year university after finishing high school in Amarillo, Texas. But after mapping out the finances and talking to success coaches at nearby Amarillo College, Marquez decided it was in his best interest to start his studies at the two-year school, where his attendance is virtually free. The aspiring mechanical engineer plans to transfer to a four-year university after earning his associate degree and launch his career in Amarillo.
Community college, Marquez told me, felt like a “cheat code to get ahead.”
“It didn’t make sense to attend a university and get the same classes that were offered at Amarillo College and pay more,” Marquez said.
Community colleges, like rural-serving Amarillo College, offer an accessible entry point into higher education for America’s rural students, a population that is growing increasingly diverse. They also serve as a vital employer, gathering place and workforce generator in small communities.
In telling the stories of rural community colleges and their students, researchers and college leaders suggest journalists include context about the role that colleges play in their communities, which may go beyond providing classroom training.
And when evaluating how well these schools serve students like Marquez, journalists should look not only at how colleges are helping a diverse range of students feel like they belong – but also at college data that demonstrates whether or not an institution is successful in launching students into the job market or transfer pathways.
Evaluate Colleges Within the Context of Their Communities
To reach the main campus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, Aspen Institute Vice President Josh Wyner traversed miles of windy roads through Kentucky coal mining country, down into the valley that houses the town of Cumberland, population circa 2,000, according to the 2020 census.
There are no hotels in the area, Wyner said, so the college put him up in an old schoolhouse converted into an inn, which used to be operated by the school. With few restaurants in town, Wyner said, the college fed him his meals.
For journalists to truly understand the impact that community colleges have in rural communities, Wyner said, they need to go visit for themselves.
“The sense of vitality that (rural community colleges) occupy, the sense of their importance, really is accentuated by going to the places that they are,” said Wyner, who runs the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “What you come to realize is that if they don’t write grants to deal with things that might be above and beyond what the community college does … nobody else will do it.”
He isn’t just talking about housing and feeding visitors. Reporters should recognize that if a rural community college doesn’t develop job training programs for whatever needs are most acute in their local communities, those jobs often don’t get filled.
“If you’re in an urban or suburban setting, there are multiple training providers and usually multiple institutions,” he said. In rural areas: “This is it. So, both educationally and outside of that, they are really important hubs.”
Reporters should also keep an eye on how community colleges are partnering with local businesses and municipalities to create opportunities for students to pursue higher education and well-paying jobs. Keep track of apprenticeship programs, internships and scholarships and follow their results.
Amarillo College partnered with the local school district, city and economic development corporation to launch a scholarship in 2018 that gives free tuition and books to local high school graduates. The goal was to allow more of those students the opportunity to pursue higher education.
Just 50% of local high school graduates go to college, said Amarillo College’s vice president of academic affairs Frank Sobey. Graduates who don’t often enter dead-end jobs, or start at meat- packing facilities where their families have worked for generations. Meat-packing jobs can pay well, Sobey said, but the work is grueling, and there isn’t necessarily a lot of opportunity for upward mobility.
“In terms of our recruitment and outreach, trying to create and sell a future that can be theirs, that can get them out of generational poverty is really big for us,” he said.
Journalists might consider exploring the life trajectory of high school graduates who pursue various paths. What industries do locals enter if they don’t go to college? How do their earnings over time compare to students who graduate from degree programs instead?
The Post-Secondary Employment Outcomes explorer from the Census Bureau is one tool to help with this reporting. It allows journalists in several states to look at granular earnings data for college graduates. (It is worth double checking this data with colleges. I have found that the earnings categories sometimes point to a cluster of degree programs, not to one specific credential. Also, keep in mind that the data is for students who graduated a while ago since it takes a while to track earnings over time.)
Question How Colleges Are Helping Students Feel Like They Belong
America’s rural areas are growing increasingly diverse. In some corners of the country, an in-migration of people of color is helping drive population growth and sustain economic vitality in “otherwise shrinking and aging communities,” according to the independent nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics.
Rural colleges are also more likely to serve students who are the first in their families to graduate from college, Wyner said.
“Building a sense of personalization and belonging is hugely important in those places,” Wyner said. “They have to feel like this [college] is a place for them.”
Journalists reporting on rural community colleges should evaluate how colleges are responding to changing demographics and how they are removing systemic barriers or improving outcomes for underrepresented students. As diversity and equity initiatives catch heat from conservative politicians, are colleges’ efforts to make students feel included causing political tensions in their communities?
An Aspen institute on rural college excellence highlights the work that Northwest Iowa Community College has done to respond to increasing diversity. (See that report and learn about other standout colleges here).
Fifteen years ago, as administrators at the school noticed a rising share of Latino students in the local school district, Northwest Iowa Community College began hiring more bilingual staff.
“The foresight we had at the time was actually a modest prediction,” said college president John Hartog. “We’ve been blessed with a great influx of individuals into our communities.”
The college remains majority white today, but Latino student enrollment has more than quadrupled over the past decade, federal data shows. The college has also seen a large jump in Black student enrollment and is more recently seeing a rise in students from Ukraine.
The school’s future depends on how well it can reach these students, particularly in the rapidly growing Hispanic and Latino community, Hartog said.
In addition to diversifying staff, Northwest Iowa Community College has increased outreach to local Hispanic families and worked to build a welcoming environment.
It developed a Spanish-language version of a campus visit program for local high school students and their families called “Latino Thunder Fridays” and enrolls 75% of students who participate, the Aspen Institute found. The school also hosts monthly events showcasing student cultures and lunch-and-learns where it teaches students vital skills like winter driving.
Northwest Iowa administrators say they work to help each individual student reach their education goals, regardless of their race or ethnicity or whether they’re the first in their family to attend college.
In conservative rural Iowa, Hartog said his school endeavors to stay out of the partisan debate over college diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by centering its message on compassion and humanity. It’s a community college’s mission to offer open access, affordable education to absolutely everyone, he said.
“Whether you’ve been here multigenerationally or you’re new to the area, we want to do everything we can to help people,” Hartog said. “That’s the number one thing in our strategic plan: We’re here to care for people.”
Evaluate Student Outcomes Before and After Graduation
Every other year the Aspen institute offers a million-dollar award to the best community college in the country. To do that, the institute thinks deeply about what outcomes indicate excellence, Wyner said.
He points journalists to two overarching questions. First, are students learning and finishing their degrees? Second, how successful are they after they graduate?
“What students come to college for is not to get a degree or to learn,” Wyner said. “They come for a better life. And the question is: Are [colleges] delivering that?”
Retention, or whether students are staying in college from year to year, stands out as a key measure of how well Amarillo College is serving students, Sobey said.
His college tries to remove basic needs barriers that might lead to a student stopping out. Well over 50% of Amarillo students struggle with at least one basic need, including food insecurity and homelessness, he said. The college has leveraged grants to provide resources, such as a food pantry and vouchers for child care and transportation. The college can help students pay for utility bills and car repairs, he said, and it offers free legal services and a free counseling center.
“The reality is our students desperately need those interventions,” Sobey said.
Community college retention rates tend to be lower than those at universities. A July report from the National Student Clearinghouse found that the average community college retained about 60% of students into their second year of school, compared to nearly 80% of university students. Community college students tend to have work obligations that complicate their school schedules and are more likely to be low-income, parents of a child, all factors that can contribute to this disparity, Wyner said.
To evaluate retention at a specific institution, Wyner suggested that journalists look both at how it compares to other colleges in the state and nationally, and whether it’s on an upward trajectory compared to past years.
Colleges can use retention as a way to bolster enrollment, without focusing on whether students graduate, Wyner said, so the Aspen Institute focuses specifically on first-to-second year retention, which is most closely aligned to graduation, he said.
“Reporters should always ask whether higher retention rates are in fact leading to higher graduation rates,” Wyner said.
Wyner also suggested that reporters take a similar comparative approach to assessing completion data, looking at how one school compares to others and to itself in past years. To gauge equity in student outcomes, Wyner said, journalists can look at the percentage of Pell-eligible students who graduate, which points to the success of low-income students, and evaluate the outcomes of racial and ethnic minorities as well.
After graduation, community college students generally have two options: transfer to a four-year institution, or go out into the community and get a job. College experts suggest journalists investigate both.
Many colleges track job placement data, Sobey said. Journalists could evaluate whether students who graduated got a job in their area of study and how much money they’re making, he added.
Even if colleges are easy to access and graduate most of their students, if graduates can’t find a living-wage job after they leave, “all they’ve done, really, is incurred debt,” Sobey said.
Wyner suggested working backward: starting from ‘what jobs does this community need?’ and then investigating whether and how the local college is preparing students for those in-demand careers.
Another critical question, Wyner said, is how well rural colleges help students transfer to a four-year school, a well-documented challenge for community college students.
Innovative rural colleges are not just thinking about exporting talent from their communities, he said, but instead about getting four-year opportunities to students where they are.
Amarillo College, for example, partners with Texas Tech university to offer an accelerated bachelor’s degree in teaching. Students complete an associate degree at Amarillo, then take a one-year online program through Texas Tech that leads to a bachelor’s in education and a certification in teaching. They do all of their student teaching hours locally, in Amarillo, Sobey said.
“We’re investing in our community locally and regionally, so we want to keep our talent here as much as we can,” Sobey said. “Students have opportunities elsewhere, and that’s fine, but we want to develop a relationship with them that keeps them here, investing back into the community and helping our local industries.”
Discover If College Students Feel Appreciated
Marquez, the aspiring engineer, feels strong ties to Amarillo College, where both he and his older sister got their start. The siblings are first-generation college students and the children of Mexican immigrants.
Success coaches that work with Amarillo students one-on-one have helped Marquez map the most efficient way through his associate degree program and encouraged him to break out of his shell. They convinced Marquez this year to participate in a college competition called Rep4, which asks students to mastermind how higher education could more equitably serve students.
Marquez’s group presented a plan for how the school could develop a tutoring center to help with student retention. Instead of making it feel like a classroom, he said, the center should feel more like an inviting café, to help minimize intimidation for students who feel scared asking for help.
To his surprise, the college was already working on a plan along these lines. They invited Marquez and his teammates to look at blueprints for the college tutoring center and weigh in. The school also flew Marquez to Boise State University in Idaho to present his idea there.
The experience “just made me feel so valued,” he said.
Marquez recommends that journalists ask that question of students they interview: Do they feel appreciated by their community college?
“It’s a scary action for students to speak their mind. There’s a good percentage of people who nod, smile, and they just keep moving,” Marquez said. But staff at Amarillo College are different, he said. “As soon as I open my mouth, their eyes are locked in. They’re nodding; they’re understanding; they’re asking questions. They want to know more.
“They genuinely care,” he added.