Funding shortfalls, enrollment declines threaten rural college students’ access to a growing list of academic disciplines 

Cuts in academic programs at rural colleges and universities are eroding the already limited options available to their students, according to The Hechinger Report. The shrinking array of postsecondary programs in rural communities reflects declines in both enrollment and overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges. Higher education spending fell in 16 of the 20 most-rural states between 2008 and 2018, when adjusted for inflation, the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities reports. 

Some rural colleges and universities are reporting multi-million-dollar deficits, including Arkansas’ Henderson State University ($78 million), Eastern Kentucky University ($25 million), and Iowa State University ($11.4 million), prompting many to discontinue dozens of programs in the humanities and sciences, from languages, history, and visual and performing arts to economics and computer coding.

Rural colleges are also reducing their program offerings in ways that reflect consumer demand, officials say. Students from rural households are often especially attuned to the return on their educational investment. “They don’t have the luxury of coming here to do something that’s not going to pay off for them or their families,” explains Brent Thomas, provost at Emporia University in Kansas. “Getting a job has always been an important factor, and with every passing year that ranks higher on their list.”

However, those assumptions about certain disciplines’ ROI in the job market can be misguided, says Megan Hickerson, who teaches history at Henderson State University, a program that will be cut at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year. “Humanities graduates have critical thinking, communication skills, and a lot of other things that are important in the workforce,” Hickerson tells The Hechinger Report. “If they don’t get that at a university, they’re never going to get it.”

Related: Want to position students for equitable post-college wages? Take a cue from the humanities. >

Higher education ‘deserts’

These programmatic cuts have significant implications for rural students, who are less likely to go to college than urban or suburban students, and less likely to seek out programs far from home. The American Council on Education finds that nearly 13 million people live in higher education “commuting zone deserts,” predominantly in the Midwest and Great Plains, where zero colleges or universities are located near prospective college students or where one community college is the only public broad access institution.

Some officials hope offering both in-person and online programs can expand course offerings and reach students who live far from campus, although limited access to high-speed internet in rural communities continues to be a barrier, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Ultimately, when rural colleges and universities shutter programs, rural students lose out, says Susan Brinkman, an Emporia State graduate with a degree in art who serves as a city commissioner. Those students miss out on “not just the major they always dreamed of,” Brinkman explains, “but all the majors they never knew existed.”

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