Toward a better definition

What is rural America?


Trying to define what “rural” is, in a nation of such diverse geography, can be a daunting task; and one’s concept of the term can be a bit ambiguous and vague. However, for those concerned with rural education, health care, and human services, that which constitutes rural must not be subjective, but rather precise. Federal and state policy makers, as well as service providers and researchers, need a clearly stated definition that is current in its interpretation.

Rural economies today are not so tied to traditionally-rural industries: less than 2% of Americans work in agriculture and less than 1% receive their primary income from agriculture – not to mention the decline of American manufacturing. In the information age, the importance of agriculture to a strong, innovative rural America is now far exceeded by the importance of developing its most important resource, its human capital. A renewed focus on higher education in these communities is a must.

But the U.S. Department of Education and the American Association of Community Colleges cannot even tell exactly how many community colleges exist, as data are collected by units of accreditation rather than districts or campuses. How can they provide adequate support for rural community colleges without this basic data? The simple answer is that they can’t. One of the biggest hurdles we encounter while trying to find opportunities for our members is determining eligibility for Federal rural grant programs. Even though the concept of rurality is elastic, funding agencies and organizations have to draw a line somewhere; and due to the scarcity of these programs, our members are classed far too frequently on the wrong side of that line.

The mechanisms underpinning the line are similarly fraught. USDE’s “urbanicity” definition classifies colleges as more or less “urban,” depending on factors such as population density and technological infrastructure. But this is not a neutral definition. Rural communities need to develop their infrastructure if they want to compete in the modern economy; upgrading their broadband shouldn’t change their rural status to their detriment. And what is considered rural in a state with low population density, like Montana, may not resemble what is considered rural in a state with a much higher density, like Massachusetts.

Toward a better definition

Three other government agencies have definitions of “rural” that are in wide use: the U.S. Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They and other organizations continue to strive for more precise definitions to fit new programs as the demographics of the United States are constantly changing. The number of rural counties fluctuates over time, and disparities with old designations continually exist.

The need for a clearer definition to meet the needs of new programs and new policies has encouraged other agencies to create more detailed definitions such as found in the collaboration between the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center and the Economic Research Service of the USDA. Agencies involved with rural health and human services will continue to evolve and adapt themselves, striving to better serve the needs of the rural population, for what is rural today will most likely change as we move on into the new millennium.

In education, we advocate for the Carnegie Foundation’s geographically-based 2010 Basic Classification. Since 1973, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has classified all U.S. institutions of higher education (including U.S. Trust Territories), and the Basic Classifications are already compatible with all existing federal education data sets. We submitted this language for insertion into the 2013 Farm Bill:

“Associate’s Colleges” shall be defined to include publicly-controlled institutions that (a) award the associate’s degree as their highest degree or (b) if bachelor’s degrees accounted for less than 10 percent of all undergraduate degrees they award according to 2008-2009 degree conferrals as reported in USED/NCES/IPEDS.

“Rural-serving community colleges” shall be defined to include Associate’s Colleges: physically located in areas other than the Primary Metropolitan Statistical Areas (PMSAs) or Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), respectively, with populations exceeding 500,000 people according to the 2010 Census. Institutions in PMSAs or MSAs with a lower total population, or not in a PMSA or MSA, are classified by the Carnegie Foundation as rural-serving. This shall include the 2010 Carnegie Basic Classification of Associate’s Colleges defined as (a) “Rural-serving Small Colleges,” with full-year unduplicated headcount enrollment below 2,500 students; (b) “Rural-serving Medium Colleges,” with full-year unduplicated headcount enrollment between 2,500 and 7,500 students; (c) “Rural-Serving Large Colleges, with full-year unduplicated headcount enrollment above 7,500 students’ and (d) Two-Year Colleges Under Four-Year Universities.

RCCA’s advocacy moving forward

The next Farm Bill is already under consideration, and we are very much involved in enhancing our language and standing in the Bill. Stay tuned for updates.