January 8 2020

Often in conversations or interviews about rural areas, we continue to hear people, usually those not from rural areas, talking in general terms, painting with broad strokes, and creating an overall grim, monolithic image of what it means to live and exist in "rural America." You may notice recurring negative or hyperbolic words and phrases used to describe "rural," like "endless poverty" or "complete conservatism" or even "desolation." Sure, some of these may be true, some of the time, for some rural areas. However, the beauty and opportunity in rural comes when we take a more expansive view of rurality and offer some highly needed, alternative lenses.

By Jennifer deCoste, Ph.D., Vice President for Leadership Strategies 

Ulrich-Schaad and Duncan in their 2018 publication, "People and places left behind: work, culture and politics in the rural United States," offer an alternative viewpoint with their three-tiered model of rural. Some of the most interesting work to me, as a scholar interested in rural education, comes from fields adjacent to education, which can be applied into the field. Ulrich-Schaad and Duncan are one such example, as Ulrich-Schaad is a rural sociologist and Duncan studies public policy.

Here are the three models of rurality from Ulrich-Schaad and Duncan:

Chronically Poor (CP) – This is where we typically see our stereotypes emerge. Much of this group is clustered in Appalachia. Hallmarks of a CP rural area include population decline, job loss, unemployment, low levels of educational attainment, high levels of poverty, and generational hardship. While the US saw a 27% overall increase in population, CP areas lost 14% of the population, with a 30% decrease in the 25-to-34 year-old age bracket. The median income here is $30,000 (compared to $45,000 nationwide). Approximately 25% of working-age men have a disability (compared to 11% nationally), 40% of children live in poverty (20% nationally), 20% of adults do not have a high school diploma, and 36% of working-age adults maintain full-time employment while 28% have no employment.

Transitioning (TR) – This covers a wide area of the US, including the Northwest, Alaskan Panhandle, Midwest, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. TR rural areas are those hurt by deindustrialization in agriculture and manufacturing. However, these areas are seeing population growth and economic revitalization through new industry development. TR areas had an 11% growth (compared with 27% nationwide), although decrease was still experienced in the coveted 25-to-34 year-old age bracket, with a median income at $51,000, quite close to the national average, and 20% of children living in poverty.

Amenity-Rich (AR) – This includes areas like Woodstock, NY and Silverton, CO, and are places that are bestowed with natural resources, show population growth (20%), and are often as close to a metropolitan area as possible to still be considered rural. This is the one type of rural area to show growth in the 25-to-34 year-old age bracket, and shows a median income of $46,000. Twenty percent of children here also live in poverty.

In thinking of the implications for our rural higher education institutions, what type of rural institution are you? How does this change your thinking about being rural? What types of opportunities are unique to your own rural spaces and places?

To summarize, I’d like to quote Richard Florida (2018): “Just as some cities and large metros are growing like gangbusters while others are declining, and some suburban areas are booming while others are beset by economic dislocation and poverty, so it is with rural America. Not all rural places fit the mold of decline. A subset of them is performing reasonably well, and many other places are transitioning from the old to the new economy. Our overly simplified mental models of America’s economic geography—especially of its rural areas—mask a more complex reality. It is critical to understand if we want to successfully bridge the economic, cultural, and political divides that continue to plague our nation.”

Keep watching for the next blog in our blog series, where we discuss how distance from an urban core impacts contemporary issues in education.

Questions? Comments? Topics you want to explore? Email the author, Jennifer deCoste, at jdecoste@credohighered.com.

Credo partners with institutions across all geographical regions and is a proud supporter of rural, independent higher institutions and the students they serve. Some of our most innovative campus partners with the most successful student outcomes are located in rural areas. Students are being set up not only for successful college experiences, but also for successful futures in progressively reinvigorated communities. Find out more about what student success outcomes you can build for your institution, whether you're rural, urban, suburban, or anything in between, by downloading our Moving The Needle Retention Guide.

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