In response to sparse data and wide-ranging potential impact, the Rural Impact Initiative aims to enhance the field’s understanding of the unique opportunities, assets and challenges of rural postsecondary institutions and learners and to ultimately increase completion rates and build the capacity of organizations, institutions and systems to support rural learners.
Achieving Equity for Rural Learners
Roughly 46 million Americans live in what the federal government designates as rural areas, yet federal policy and philanthropy have seemingly left rural America behind with many communities experiencing persistent intergenerational poverty, unemployment and lack of access to health care, broadband internet and postsecondary education. Additionally, while rural students tend to graduate high school at higher rates than their counterparts from denser areas, college access and completion remain persistent challenges.
More than two million rural learners currently enrolled in postsecondary programs often face culture shocks on campuses and in educational systems that were designed for students from different geographies. Finally, rural communities are less likely to have residents with associate degrees or higher and, in comparison to the rest of the United States, the some college, no degree population tends to be overrepresented in rural areas.
To better understand the specific challenges at hand and enhance support for the unique assets and opportunities of rural regions, ECMC Foundation’s Rural Impact Initiative serves to deepen the field’s understanding of factors related to rural learners’ enrollment, persistence and completion, alignment with rural community and workforce needs and graduates’ roles in local economic development.
A Vision to Understand and Strengthen the Ecosystem
ECMC Foundation envisions more vibrant rural communities through a strengthened postsecondary ecosystem, spurred by an increase in rural learners’ completion over the next decade.
Rural communities bring many strengths, assets and expertise to this work, and ECMC Foundation will engage expert partners in the field as we grow and deepen our understanding of the postsecondary landscape across rural communities.
Defining Rural Institutions’ and Learners’ Needs
According to the United States federal government, there are more than two dozen definitions of “rural,” and ECMC Foundation is thus necessarily inclusive in how we classify the learners, institutions and communities we aim to serve, with the understanding that rural learners deserve to define for themselves what it means to hold a rural identity. For those seeking precise details, we recommend perusing definitions and metrics from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges and the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Beyond the lack of a single agreed-upon definition, we also lack significant necessary datasets on how rural postsecondary institutions function, how rural learners’ postsecondary needs and expectations differ from their more urban counterparts and what federal, state and local policy changes may be needed to strengthen these systems and the communities they serve.
The Rural Impact Initiative officially launched in January 2024, building on nearly a decade of existing grantmaking in this arena. ECMC Foundation has recognized a need to respond to rural issues since our inception, with 19 grants totaling $8.3 million that intentionally focused on rural learners.
This initiative unites that body of work going forward, responding proactively to the needs we’re seeing in the field and to the ways that rural learners and institutions differ from their urban and suburban counterparts. These projects will continue to focus on developing knowledge about the unique assets among rural communities that could catalyze increases in completion, elevate career pathways and enable institutional collaboration.
Opportunities for Funding
The initiative’s multiyear commitment will distribute grants and investments through a series of requests for proposal and the Foundation’s open letter of inquiry portal.