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Rural Matters

Nov 16, 2020

In the third of our four-part series, Rural Higher Education: Challenges & Opportunities, Michelle chats with four experts about rural diversity, both perceptions and reality; challenges and opportunities involving diverse students in the rural higher education space; and the innovative initiatives colleges and rural communities are developing to deal with these challenges and opportunities: Alyssa Ratledge, a postsecondary education researcher at MDRC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy research firm; Deborah Santiago. the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Excelencia in Education; Edward Smith-Lewis, Executive Director of UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building (ICB), a team dedicated to supporting the resiliency of HBCUs; and Noel Harmon, President and Executive Director of Asian Pacific Islander American Scholars, formerly the Asian Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. Ratledge notes that, despite perceptions, rural America is not monolithic. About 15 to 20 percent of rural individuals identify as non-white, but in many areas of the country the percentage is much higher. In addition, she explains, even in predominantly white states, rural diversity is increasing faster than urban diversity, which is important for understanding rural issues, including access to higher education and dealing with rural poverty. Santiago notes her organization is looking at transformation and resiliency in areas with a substantial Latino population, including a current focus on Puerto Rico. There’s a myth that the majority of Latinos in the United States are undocumented, which is not accurate, she notes, adding that it’s important to “meet students where they’re at.” Smith-Lewis notes that almost 50 percent of the black population in the South is located in rural communities, and that his organization is developing programs that enable these individuals to return to these communities. Smith-Lewis believes that a key to solving HBCU issues is to bring the stakeholders to the table and to understand that better technology and additional resources need to be brought to bear in the rural South. Harmon points out that the Asian community itself is quite diverse and that about 75 percent of the higher ed students it serves is first generation to attend college.  Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and the Asian community in general often are not represented at the table or are not part of the discussion in terms of necessary resources, such as extending broadband access, she says. The guests describe culturally relevant initiatives they are undertaking to meet these challenges: Harmon hopes to engage in culturally relevant research that involves organic conversations to find areas of systemic change. Smith-Lewis describes his group’s Career Pathways Development initiative, which involves actually going to the higher education institutions and conducting town halls and other conversations to find ways for the institutions they partner with to be successful, and the importance of telling the larger historical narrative of the black population, and the importance of targeting recipients, as is the case in a recent initiative in Mississippi. Santiago describes her organization’s focus on positioning institutions enrolling rural students as trendsetters, including those in rural Puerto Rico. 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