The Rural Imperative

Education and the economy are inextricably linked and improving both is the rural imperative — a critical challenge facing our nation.

Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a challenge and made a promise to approximately 200 educators, business leaders, and federal, state, and local government officials, who came from as far as Alaska to attend the Education Commission of the States’ National Summit on the Role of Education in Rural America, held in Washington.

Secretary Duncan challenged rural America to send more young people and adults to universities and colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and other industry-recognized certification programs. Overall, rural schools have better high school graduation rates but lower college-going rates than other parts of the country.

Together, Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack promised that the Obama Administration will support rural students and emphasized their importance to America’s economic future.

This sounds pretty straight forward, but because rural students are less likely to enroll and complete postsecondary education, many rural youth and adults are not benefiting from college and career training opportunities.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 3.1 million job openings nationally but many industries are having trouble finding qualified employees in what has become a knowledge-based economy.

At the same time, there are new opportunities developing in rural America with new industries developing in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and technology. In fact, new companies are now engaged in “rural-sourcing,” actively recruiting employees to fill positions for companies that are finding it cost effective to locate in rural America.

To rebuild and reinvent rural economies, more youth and adults must access postsecondary education and turn an economic crisis into a once in a generation opportunity.

Click here for more information on rural issues at ED.

John White is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the Department of Education


  1. Colorado Mountain College serves nine counties in north-central Colorado. The rural 12,000-square-mile district includes international resorts, ranches, wilderness areas and former mining towns. Each year, over 20,000 students take classes at our 11 locations or on the internet.
    In our state we have what is referred to as the Colorado Paradox, since we rank among the top 5 states nationwide for degree holders, but in the bottom quartile for 9th graders that will go on to complete a degree. Our educated adult population is made up of transplants from other states. Our locals need the support of TRiO, especially in rural areas.
    Eight of CMC’s 11 locations are fortunate enough to participate in TRiO programs. CMC has two Student Support Services programs and an Upward Bound program, together serving 350 students at the college and in local high schools. Participants in our SSS programs are three times as likely to remain in college, stay in good academic standing, graduate, and transfer to four-year colleges and universities than their non-TRiO counterparts.
    Many of our SSS alumni go on to complete graduate level degrees. They are all first generation, low income, and/or have disabilities. These students are already at risk of dropping out when they arrive as incoming freshman, just by virtue of their backgrounds and lack of college preparation. Yet, because of the assistance they receive from our TRiO programs, most have stayed in school and gone on to successful lives.
    TRiO works! Whether urban or rural, it is the connection to caring and knowledgeable TRiO professionals that makes the difference for first generation, low income, and disabled students.

  2. I direct an Upward Bound program in rural and poor northern NYS. Our students enter our program with considerable academic and social skill deficits. We work with them for up to four years and are proud to report that over 75% of our students enter post secondary education and over 60% are retained into their sophomore year. While with us, our students learn the educational and social skills that will make it possible to become contributing and well-adjusted citizens of this country. Please continue to recognize the great importance of the outreach to our significant low-income population that TRIO programs offer. Do not buy into the misguided movement to turn the US into a caste system like the one that existed in the early 1900. Do not turn your backs on the gains made since President Johnson started the TRIO programs in the middle 1960s.

  3. Mr. White, I appreciate the fact that you have responded to our concerns about the Title IV TRIO programs. However, we still do not understand why the cuts were so dramatic to TRIO. As an active participant in “”, I see that most foundations work in major cities where they can effect the greatest amount of students and adults in the least amount of distance. Basically, they get more bang for their bucks. In rural America, we rely on the TRIO programs to provide those services for our students and adults who want to go to college. How is cutting the PELL grants and funding to TRIO going to really help these students and adults achieve their dreams?

    As you can see from the responses, TRIO is a vital service in rural America. We can not change the college going rate without the services we provide. Under the re-authorization of HEOA 2008, we have been tasked with even greater responsibility to ensure that our students and adults are prepared for and complete college. How do we do it under these cuts to TRIO? How do we do it?

    I look forward to your response to me and the others who have concerns about our TRIO programs in rural America.

  4. TRIO WORKS!!! I currently serve as a director of a Talent Search Program housed at Western Kentucky University. We serve 1000 students in our surrounding rural counties. Without the services of Talent Search many of these students would not be exposed post secondary awareness and/or preparation.

  5. How can we counter lower college-going and graduation rates in rural America if we don’t provide the kind of support — financial as well as emotional/guidance — that’s necessary and offered through TRiO?! In rural Vermont, I work with students who struggle daily not only with the challenges of college life but also with what’s going on at home in terms of financial resources/stability, housing security, etc.) Many of our students are commuters who oftentimes lose or can’t afford their transportation to campus. TRiO is there in so many ways to support them. This will be lost to them if the value we provide to these students — our nation’s future — isn’t understood and honored.

  6. Rural areas may mean different things to folks. But, as a Northwesterner I have seen rural areas that are ISOLATED big time. This is where TRIO programs and programming can make a huge diffference. Actual numbers do not apply here.

    Opportunity is required. Please do not write off the kids who live in these rural areas.

  7. I think The Rural Imperative is a great idea. There are many rural communities that are dying because of a lack of industries and businesses. I am sure many would welcome new business opportunities for their citizens. The key to opportunity is education. The key to education is access and financial support. The Title IV funding provides both through TRIO programs and Federal Financial Aid such as Pell Grants, Loans, and College Work Study opportunities. Please be aware that cutting these valuable resources for low income, first generation, and disabled students is perpetuating the barriers that have kept them out of higher education in the past. We must educate the young people (and adults returning to re-train) in the USA before we completely lose our economic power on a global level. This is not the time to cut support, but to actually increase it to benefit the entire nation and future generations.

  8. I work with a TRIO Talent Search program that serves rural southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Students in the small towns I work in need the constant support, encouragement, and motivation that programs like Talent Search can provide to help them realize that college is a very real possibility for them. Starting in the 6th grade, helping those students dream and shape their future goals to include college and continuing that work through high school graduation is the goal of Talent Search programs. The administration has NOT shown that support for TRIO programs and slashed funding at a time when it says it is investing in America’s future. The administration is saying one thing and doing another thing. Letting students know that an education will give them choices for their future is difficult when sometimes at home, they are hearing different things from parents. TRIO works and it’s been proven. Back up your talk with actions.

    • Thank you EBF. Here is a link to the FY2012 budget proposal, which also provides the 2011 CR and 2010 numbers. We continue to work on the final FY2011 budget and seek to support the overall program.

    • Agreed! Trio does work and proves it annually. Our rural Student Support Services (SSS) program in Souteastern New Mexico has had a consistent retention rate of 92 to 96% over the last 11 years along with graduation and transfer rates of 87 to 90%. We are all familiar with the statistics connected to the drop out rates for community college students; especially first generation, low-income students. I have seen nothing that compares to Title IV Trio programs when it comes to results and the success of our students. The bottom line is that cutting resources to these programs equates to the loss of many rural college students. Trio programs are so very essential for these students.

  9. TRiO works! In rural southeast Oklahoma, students who participate in Talent Search enroll in postsecondary at a rate significantly higher than the state average. For the past ten years the college-going rate for our senior participants -who start postsecondary the following fall – has ranged from 65 – 75% while the area average for ALL students – not just those who meet eligibility criteria for Talent Search (TRiO) is 40.9% and the rate for the State of Oklahoma rate is 46.9%. TRiO programs play an important role in motivating our students to pursue that college degree, and it is something they hunger to do. Please help us continue to provide the opportunities to these students who are from low-income families where neither parent has a college degree and who have never been exposed to the culture of higher education. Many of our students haven’t even experienced an elevator until we bring them to campus for a tour! TRiO Works!

  10. Mr. White, I live in southeastern Kentucky and am well aquainted with Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC) and it’s University Center of the Mountains (UCM). One of the best reasons that HCTC is so successful in this community is because of its Federal TRIO programs. HCTC hosts a Student Support Services, 2 Upward Bound programs and provides an office in UCM for the Commonwealth Educational Opportunity Center (hosted by Morehead State University.) Given the budget cut backs for the TRIO programs and potental loss to assist hundreds of students and adults start and continue their college education, how is this going to help this going to help HCTC and its surrounding community? Why is this administration not investing more money in TRIO programs and more money in TRIO programs in rural America? TRIO does work.

    • Sharee,
      I was very impressed with Hazard, UCM, and Morehead State, which I was also fortunate to visit. The Administration proposed level funding for FY2011 for TRIO, which as you know includes several different programs. In difficult budget times, there may need to be an overall reduction. The Administration continues to provide support for the TRIO programs and was also extremely pleased to maintain the maximum Pell grant award at $5,500 per student, which will continue to open the doors to college for many low-income rural students.

  11. “The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 3.1 million job openings nationally but many industries are having trouble finding qualified employees in what has become a knowledge-based economy.”

    It would be interesting to see what these jobs are. How can you ask a student to spend money on a college career to work in a factory? Why waste the time?

    Increasing college completion is fine. What are our college grads really looking for, though? Higher pay, and better jobs. Are these factors available? Most college graduates I talk to are taking menial, skill-less postitions, because the job market is absolutely flooded with applicants. They are taking positions that pay ever so slightly above the minimum wage, and really aren’t helpful in anything but paying their student loans.

    For rural students, working-class poor students, at least in my area, this burden is shared by the family. And, as most people from my rural area of the country can attest, family comes first. Why should students burden their family financially to take a position they could fill straight out of high school?

    A challenge to rural educators is fine, but without economic support, rural students will see it for the hollow statement it is.

    • Why? Education is the only sure path out of poverty through acquiring the skills for jobs that exist, becoming small business owner or an entrepreneur who invents a product or service that creates an entire new industry. Here is one such inspiring story, Thanks for your post.

      John White
      Office of Communications and Outreach

    • The Administration is committed to an approach to the Federal Pell Grant program that increased and will maintain the maximum award at $5,550 a year to open the doors to college for low-income students. For people interested into going into public service (becoming a teacher, government or nonprofit worker, for example) Congress passed income-based repayment (IBR), which makes the required monthly payment to repay college loans based on your income and after 10 years of public service the balance of your loan is forgiven.

      Both of these programs and others provided through federal student aid ( are intended to open the doors to college and career training.

  12. Rural students face myriad challenges. Frequently poor local economies, harworking families who are underemployed, long bus rides, lack of resources to attend college and lack of opportunities to learn about the offerings of various colleges that might suit them… Rural communities face the challenge of not being able to employ students who graduate from college, so many of the students and families who are 1st generation college graduates in a small town, raise their kids to go to college, but the kids never return to their rural hometowns for employment. Plus, the reality of unemployment rates in rural areas being what they are, rural economies are not attracting college grads who might be attracted to small town life, because they have no way to support themselves, or any young family they might bring.
    This creates a systemic problem of communities, which, because they do not have a lot of jobs for people with college degrees, are limited for college-educated adult role models for high school students. In turn, this yields a small society where college educations are not needed, represented, valued, and are even resented. I say “resented,” because in these small communities, the few who are college educated (teachers, hospital professionals, administrators) often have positions of the highest wage earners in these middle-income communities, and are seen as privileged.
    Plus, when rural kids go to college and see what they’ve been missing their whole lives, and here about all the opportunities their collegiate peers had in suburban and urban America, it creates a longing to provide those missed opportunities for their future children. It also means that they won’t be going back to their hometown to serve as a model other future high school grads that college can help them achieve.

    Furthermore, the message of sent by higher education is one of urban values. Kids who go to the best urban high schools end up in the best colleges, not because of grades or aptitude, but because those high schools allowed them to diversify their academic portfolios in ways that you just can’t in a struggling rural school that is lucky to be able to provide a foreign language class, much less soccer fields and scholarly debate. And the college model is directed at those who are well-versed in all things commercial. Campuses are about Starbucks and sports, Ikea and ideas…college-town values that are not reflected in rural communities. There is an extreme disconnect between the college dream and the rural belief system. For students who bridge the gap, it is often a one-way pass to a lifestyle of popular influence. For those who don’t bridge the gap, urban living is a curiosity or a threat; either way, it’s seen as different from all that they’ve known. And choosing something different can be very unappealing if the model for adulthood is that everyone around them is doing just fine without college.

    • I have viewed college differently on my travels. Couple of examples:
      In the mountains of Kentucky, Hazard Community College is an anchor for its community. The University Center of the Mountains is enabling youth and adults to begin and complete their education to fill the need for teachers, other professions, and to be small business owners close to home.

      In the remote rural Tucumcari area of New Mexico, Mesalands Community College is offering workforce training and GED. It recently signed an agreement with the University of New Mexico to offer bachelor’s degrees in Business Administration and Early Childhood Education. UNM courses will be delivered online and via interactive television (ITV) at the community college. These programs could also support the local community. At the same time, Mesalands C.C. is cultivating an entirely new industry at its North American Wind Energy Training Center, where it sends students straight into jobs with affiliates of General Electric.

      And many K-12 schools are leveraging technology to connect students with broader academic opportunities than can prepare them for postsecondary education.

      Rural students are smart and many want more opportunities to access higher education. For rural communities, these opportunities are potentially most important for the youth and adults who stay.

      College, career training, and industry certification programs can support rural communities with the business development tools and entrepreneurs to invent something new within their communities and exported to the world if they so desire. The Administration is working across federal agencies to support this work.

      John White
      Office of Communications and Outreach

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