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Rural Matters

Oct 19, 2020

In the first of our four-part series, Rural Higher Education: Challenges & Opportunities, Michelle chats with Alyssa Ratledge. a postsecondary education researcher at MDRC; Dr. Jan Miller, Dean of the College of Education and the Director of Online Programs at the University of West Alabama (UWA); and Joe Thiel, Director of Academic Policy and Research for the Montana University System. There’s a big gap between urban and rural students in higher education, Ratledge notes, with about 41 percent of urban adults attaining college degrees, while only 28 percent of rural adults have those degrees. While rural and urban areas have similar graduation rates, those in rural areas are less likely to attend college, she points out. In addition, she says, many rural students live in “education deserts,” where there are no nearby colleges to attend. Ratledge adds that rural students are facing a “digital divide,” with less access to robust broadband, as well as other challenges like transportation issues.  Miller describes UWA’s University Charter School, which provides real-world experience for education students and how business and economic opportunities in the area are now expanding. UWA also has introduced innovative initiatives with local communities, such as “drive-in” education programs and turning school buses into Internet “hot spots.” Miller also describes dual enrollment programs and scholarships opportunities for juniors and seniors in high school that require that students remain in the local area for three years. In Montana, Thiel notes, it’s difficult for smaller institutions of higher education to sustainably offer even in-demand programs in fields like allied health, due to the costs of programs and the challenges recruiting and retaining qualified faculty, who can often earn more working in industry. He notes that higher education institutions are exploring “hub-and-spoke” initiatives, in which the hubs would provide online teaching in respiratory therapy, for example, while the spokes would coordinate the clinical and lab experiences and provide in-person supports. To learn more about these ideas, check out MDRC’s paper on COVID-19 and Rural Higher Education, This episode and the entire Rural Higher Education Series is underwritten by and produced in collaboration with Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit The series is also produced in collaboration with MDRC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research firm committed to finding solutions to some of the most difficult problems facing the nation. Learn more at