Senior farmer using a laptop and cheking out the condition of the plants in a lavender field before harvest.

Rural Communities are in a College Crisis: Better Online Colleges are a Solution

In California, about 10% of  students — more than half a million — live in rural areas. Many of them struggle to go to college in part because there are simply no colleges near them.

“(B)ecause attending a four-year-college almost always means moving away, paying upwards of $12,000 a year to live in a dorm, depending on its location, can seem daunting to low-income families,” EdSource noted

That’s assuming there is a place to live at all.

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education described the struggle students at UC-Santa Cruz in California have finding housing, while EdSource has written about the struggles of people in  rural communities like Alturas, California, which don’t have a community college within 90 miles

This is a double-edged sword for those from rural parts of California: qualified students can be shut out of college  because of a statewide housing crunch, and students from rural communities may live far away from the closest higher education option and cannot commute from home.  This is not a temporary problem that will go away on its own.

Even before recent housing crunches, the education system was struggling to include rural residents. An analysis found that the vast majority of school districts struggling with chronic absenteeism were in rural areas. That means fewer students in rural areas qualify for college admissions. 

Location Is An Accessibility Issue For Rural Students

When we think about college accessibility, we usually think about things like cost: can students afford it? Or test scores: are a college’s standards too high? What’s becoming clear is that location is also a significant accessibility issue: between college costs, housing crunches, and a simple lack of proximity, people who live in small towns and rural areas are getting shut out of the opportunity to go to college and get skills that are increasingly essential in the job market.

If we’re serious about getting more people to college, and getting people skilled-up so that businesses have access to qualified employees, we need to make colleges more accessible to people who don’t live near them, and who can’t afford to move.

Online classes once seemed like an easy fix, but haven’t yet lived up to their promise.  This is in part because many rural communities lack easy internet access, making online classes themselves inaccessible. It’s also because online classes have traditionally had low retention rates among disenfranchised student populations. Online classes have best served those who were already well served by the education system

Either the college system needs to ramp up, putting significantly more high quality brick-and-mortar schools in easy reach of rural communities, or we need to find ways to make online learning a viable path forward – as effective as it is accessible.

How To Make Free Online Community College Accessible To Everyone

It’s easier to expand internet access than it is to build new colleges from scratch, and at Calbright that’s the approach we’re taking. As an exclusively online community college, Calbright loans a laptop and a wifi hotspot to any student who asks, meaning that every Calbright student has the ability to access our digital classes and campus, no matter where they are.  

It’s an unconventional approach, but it works because it takes the challenge of location seriously and doesn’t make people who already have limited online access jump through hoops. Instead of making their lives more complicated, we solve the problem.  

We also solve an accessibility issue by making admissions easy: we accept everyone. Any Californian, 18 or older, who has a high school degree or equivalent, is automatically accepted. It doesn’t matter what your grades were, or your test scores, or if you were truant: you can go to Calbright and get access to high quality classes.

But making online classes more available doesn’t solve the second, harder, problem – how to help students succeed in an online college environment? 

Finding Better Ways To Support Online Students

Nearly everything Calbright does is designed to address that challenge. By eliminating logistical challenges and red tape; by using a Competency-Based Education model that allows us to offer classes that fit students’ lives, rather than insisting students change their lives to fit our classes; by offering certificates in vital job skills that can be obtained in under a year, instead of requiring students stay in class for two, four, or more years; Calbright creates a system that is better suited to keeping students in class, and we have the persistence rates to prove it.

Just as important, however, is the degree to which Calbright makes “online learning” a high touch experience of connection, rather than one of isolation. Every student has an academic counselor and their own support staff. Every student has access to free counseling, tutoring, and community-based study groups. Every student has people checking in on them, reaching out to them, and working to recognize obstacles to the students goals and solve them before they become problems. 

Too often we’ve looked at online education as a way to cut costs, but Calbright’s focus is not on being cheaper, it’s on being better. Not better for everyone, but a better option for the students who need an alternative to the traditional education system. That’s why, at Calbright, we attract a significantly different student body:  

  • Over 90% of our students are 25 or older, with more than half of them in their mid-30s or older. That’s compared to 35% in the California Community College system
  • Over 70% of our student identify as BIPOC
  • Over 30% are parents or caregivers, compared to 10% in the CCC system

Over 90 percent of Calbright’s students say the reason they came to Calbright is not (just) that we are a free community college, but that we have this unique model that fits their lives and supports them.  

Changing the model of online education from something designed to cut costs to something designed to work differently and better meet the needs of targeted populations, works.  

The Best Solution Is Also The Fastest

Sitting on our hands and waiting for the housing market to cool off isn’t a viable strategy. Building more dorms and colleges might work, but each individual project will take years to complete.

Making online education work, and expanding its capacity, is a real solution – one that can be acted on quickly. It takes location seriously as an accessibility issue, and effectively addresses the problem for many students. We know: we’re showing it can work.

Related Blogs

In last week’s New York Times, writer Rachel Louise Snyder wrote a moving and heartfelt...

We know that college has become increasingly expensive, putting it out of reach for many...

California’s public sector is the second largest employer in the state, employing over 2.3 million...

Ready to get rolling?