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Rural Community College Leaders Gather to Discuss Challenges

Roughly 800 of the country's 1,200 community colleges are in rural areas, and leaders from those institutions came together this week in Washington to talk about what they could do to increase access and affordability and graduate more students.

About 70 higher education officials, which included members of the Rural Community College Alliance and the Community Colleges of Appalachia, took part in the annual Rural Community College Day. The event included a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Duncan's main message was one of thanks for the work they do in educating the middle class, said Martha Kanter, the department's undersecretary who participated in the rural-focused event. Many of those colleges also serve low-income, minority students, and the department is proud of the increasing number of students receiving federal Pell grants, she said. Those need-based grants are awarded to low-income students, and that figure has jumped from roughly 6 million students five years ago to 9.4 million today, she said.

Kanter said she heard some educators saying they can't afford to pay for students to take the exams for Advanced Placement course credit. She heard similar concerns about college students who can't afford licensing or certification exams.

"We're going to dive in here," Kanter said. "Shame on the state and shame on us for not fixing this."

Kanter, a former long-time community college president in California, emphasized community colleges' performance, particularly how to enroll and graduate more students.

"We want more people getting more education after high school," she said. "We need to get more people ready for careers."

That's an issue in particular for rural areas, which have the lowest college-enrollment rates of any geographic area. Only 27 percent of rural students going to a postsecondary institution, compared with 34 percent nationally.

Kanter's suggestions for addressing that issue included: beefing up high school dual-enrollment courses, putting more high school students on college campuses for courses, and offering college remediation courses on high school campuses. High schools and colleges need to have well-articulated relationships to offer career and technical education, and high school-to-college partnerships need to involve industry, she said.

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