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Rural universities a source of impressive innovation amid pandemic challenges

Virtual reality
Posted at 2:12 PM, Mar 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-08 14:12:05-05

In many ways, rural universities are the lifeblood of their communities.

Outside of their economic impact, they are training future generations of workers who, many times, are integral parts to their community’s success, but these universities and community colleges are facing increasing challenges.

While rural high school students graduate at similar rates to urban and suburban high school students, their college enrollment rates are much lower. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 28% of rural adults have a college degree, compared to 41% of urban adults.

As legacy vocations such as farming continue to decline, it is now up to rural universities and community colleges to innovate to offer access to more rural Americans who sometimes struggle to find it.

“We’re trying to ensure that we don’t leave those communities behind; that we’re giving them every bit of those opportunities that the rest of America has,” said John Marshall, president of Colorado Mesa University, a university of 10,000 students in Grand Junction, Colorado that services 14 of Colorado’s more underserved counties.

On Colorado’s Western Slope, where CMU resides, the median age compared to the rest of the state is older (43.4 vs 36.4), the median income is lower ($46,143 vs. $56,765), and the unemployment rate is higher (7.7% vs. 4.8%), according to Region10, a nonprofit that services the same area.

Those numbers do not begin to touch on other challenges rural communities nationwide face, including health care access and broadband access.

To address some of these issues, CMU used a $1 million grant to purchase virtual reality software for its physician assistant students. It is a state-of-the-art technology that CMU posits puts them at the forefront of the medical field.

“This is part of engaging students that then are able to impact their families, which then are able to impact their communities. So, it’s a small nidus which is going to bring this huge community impact, which may seem crazy coming from one virtual reality experience,” said Amy Bronson, assistant vice president for research and innovation at the university.

“One of my big goals in medicine is to eventually serve the communities I love on the Western Slope, and right now in the US, there is definitely a shortage in primary care providers, especially in the rural areas,” added Jack Berger, a student in the PA program.

More rural colleges are using innovation to attract students as well. In our country’s Appalachian Region, 11 community colleges in Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky have started programs that more closely connect students to their communities’ entrepreneurial hubs.

At Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College, the program helped turn a $15,000 grant into more than $200,000 worth of assets as students worked to start an on-campus store, an Agriculture Innovation Summit, and a Business Launch Initiative.

At Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Kentucky, it allowed a major manufacturing company to open a facility on campus, creating jobs for the community and internships for students.

“[This helps us] ensure our 14-county service region has the economic ability to stay stable through a downturn in coal, and the ability to get folks excited about coming and getting medical training that’s going to allow them to go back and serve their communities,” said Bronson.

We think of rural life as a slower counterpart to our country’s urban cores, but step onto some of their college campuses and the solution-oriented innovation taking place is anything but.