Higher Ed’s Role in Growing Rural Economies

Tuesday, April 4, 2023 - The digital economy has been driving job growth across the country for much of the last decade-plus. But nearly all of those jobs, no matter the industry, were created in major metropolitan areas. Michael and Jeff look at how one town and one university in Ohio can serve as a national blueprint for growing the rural economy. This episode made possible with support from Ascendium Education Group.

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The digital economy has been driving job growth across the country for much of the last decade-plus. But nearly all of those jobs, no matter the industry, were created in major metropolitan areas. Michael and Jeff look at how one town and one university in Ohio can serve as a national blueprint for growing the rural economy. This episode made possible with support from Ascendium Education Group.

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Michael Horn:

Even as low-skilled jobs that might have evaporated during the pandemic make a return, one thing that has become clear is that the gap is growing between good jobs that require some higher education or training and those who are unemployed or underemployed and often don't have a path to that training.

Jeff Selingo:

And Michael, for rural communities, that gap is even more acute as the local availability of both good jobs and training opportunities is scarce. And so today in Future U, we're going to talk about what it might take to help limited income rural residents get access to high quality training and the barriers to scaling that solution across the country.


This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a non-profit organization committed to helping learners from low income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. Although jobs in the US tech industry have been in the headlines lately for the rising number of layoffs at the likes of Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Facebook, the reality is, is that the digital economy has been driving job growth across the country for much of the last decade plus. But those jobs have not been evenly distributed nationwide. Nearly all of them last decade, some 96% of the tech jobs created, were located in major metro areas. Even with the rise of remote work during the pandemic, rural and smaller metropolitan areas are lagging when it comes to tech employment.

Now, why focus on tech employment in rural areas? Because they contribute to higher household incomes, which have a ripple effect lifting the economic prosperity overall and being a catalyst for a tech ecosystem in these communities. Brēyana Ray is Director of the Rural Innovation Network, which is part of the Center on Rural Innovation. The network currently works with 36 rural communities to help them build out their tech ecosystems. And Ray says it starts with pointing out that tech jobs are everywhere.

Brēyana Ray:

Showing them the diversity of tech jobs that really exists. So a lot of people assume that tech jobs are limited to software development or programming. There are actually many different types of tech jobs available, and they exist in the local school districts, they exist in the hospitals, they exist in many different forms of businesses that are already there. You just have to get people to think creatively.

Jeff Selingo:

Now, one of the communities the Rural Innovation Network works with is Portsmouth, Ohio. Portsmouth is an Ohio river-town on the border with Kentucky, some 100 miles southeast of Cincinnati. In recent times, Portsmouth has become in some ways the poster child for the opioid crisis, the subject of many news stories. Its Town Square is on the cover of the book Dreamland. Its population today is around 18,000, which is less than half of what it had at the height in 1930 when shoe, clothing and steel manufacturing dominated the region's economy.

Dawn Jordan grew up in Portsmouth. She started taking classes at nearby Shawnee State University in 1997 when she was a junior in high school. Her plan was to become a school teacher. But after graduating high school, she wanted to see the world. She became a flight attendant and then moved to San Francisco to work. But she missed Ohio and Portsmouth and moved home. And then she landed back at Shawnee State University as an undergraduate, more than two decades after she started taking classes there.

In the time away, what she noticed is that college, a bachelor's degree, is no longer something that is automatically expected after high school. For teenagers and young adults in Portsmouth at Shawnee State, it is something that they have to want because they see a direct connection to the job market.

Dawn Jordan:

One of the things that I've really noticed through being back in a classroom setting with a younger demographic is how open they are and how motivated they are to help generate positive change. But I think they're a bit of a hard to reach demographic because they're not very easily influenced in the traditional ways. So that's definitely a challenge getting those things out there. I think it has to be purely organically driven. I think that they can snuff out nefarious intentions from a mile away, and if it's not something that they're on board with, then there's no masking that behind any fancy marketing.

Jeff Selingo:

In the long history of American higher ed, Shawnee State University is a baby. It was established in 1986 from an academic center that one of the state's big public universities, Ohio University had established there. Today, it offers more than 70 associate bachelor's and master's degree programs with an enrollment of around 3,200 students. In March, the university opened an innovation hub in a building downtown that dates back to the late 1800s when it housed a clothing factory. David Kilroy is director of the innovation hub, which is focused on using the university's well regarded video gaming program as the means to foster entrepreneurship and innovation in the wider community.

David Kilroy:

We've built our game development program into a top 10 ranked undergraduate program in the country. And for a rural regional public university like Shawnee State, that's really important. It's important from a competitive standpoint, but it's also important from just telling the story of who we are and what we do and what are students going to accomplish. So I really see the hub as this center of gravity, not just for the university, not just for the community, but for the region.

Jeff Selingo:

In many ways, the Rural Innovation Network is also a hub. It helps institutions like Shawnee State in regions like Portsmouth connect with research, data, information and a wider network of partners. Here's Brēyana Ray again.

Brēyana Ray:

It's really bringing together a collaborative infrastructure. So we have, as an organization, subject matter experts that can bring in extra capacity that some of these organizations may not have, extra guidance, extra assistance, being able to create partnerships, bringing in local partnerships, and bringing in potentially regional or national partnerships that these communities may not have had prior. But a lot of it is really getting people to understand what the shared goal is, and creating those lines of communication and helping organizations create those lines of communication.

Jeff Selingo:

I mentioned at the top that tech jobs contribute to higher household incomes and have a ripple effect in rural communities. Another reason to focus on tech in rural areas is that much of the economy is driven by tech jobs. Think of John Deere dealerships, which repair million dollar farm machinery filled with dozens of computers, or manufacturing where most factory floors are now run by technology. A study last year from the Center on Rural Innovation found that based on national employment patterns, rural employers in non-tech industries should have about 81,000 more tech workers if they were hiring at the same rates as the national average for those industries.

More than 40,000 of those missing jobs are in manufacturing alone. While there are many educational avenues to skilling up to those jobs, as we've talked often on this show, one road still goes through Shawnee State and a bachelor's degree.

David Kilroy:

We also announced last year that for students coming from our primary county region that the cost of attendance was free, that we would provide free tuition to anyone attending college. And that makes a huge difference because it does change the narrative around college being expensive and you have to leave town to go to college, and instead shifting to what's possible when you stay at a local regional comprehensive like Shawnee State and start to make those changes in your life and work towards your next professional goals.

Jeff Selingo:

Still, thanks to the internet and national networks of providers like Merit America and employer partnerships with the likes of Southern New Hampshire or Western Governors or Arizona State University, one of the challenges for anchor institutions like Shawnee State is that they are no longer the only game in town. Brēyana Ray of the Rural Innovation Network.

Brēyana Ray:

When you talk about rural communities, in reality, traditional higher education may not always be the best answer or the best fit for the needs and realities of those particular communities. You're faced with access and affordability. Sometimes you're faced with a mismatch between skills and jobs. Obviously, there's some cultural barriers, and unique cultural and social context that may not always be reflected in traditional higher education institutions that can create barriers for students who feel disconnected from what's happening.

Jeff Selingo:

The geographic spread of higher education has long made the idea of colleges as economic incubators popular. In Ohio, the governor in the 1960s, James Rhodes once bragged that he was placing a state university within 30 miles of every resident in the state. But now with demographic declines in many rural areas, these institutions, often seen as the modern factory of the region, are facing their own thread of extinction. It's clear that both the rural economy and the tech economy in particular and rural universities will depend on each other to make their communities vibrant.

The question now is, how universities like Shawnee State working with local partners and national collaborators like the Center on Rural Innovation rethink their mission in this new economy?

Michael Horn:

This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, the nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student-centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aim is to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.

Well, welcome back to Future U, and thank you first, Jeff, for putting together that package from our interview with Brēyana, Dawn and David. One thing that Brēyana didn't mention is that the Rural Innovation Network works in communities with populations between 5,000 and 50,000. Our personal narratives, of course, shape how we approach our point of view to higher ed. And I know that you had a particular interest in this piece.

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, I often don't think that I grew up in a rural area, but my hometown was around 5,000, so it always felt more small town to me. I graduated from high school in 1991. And as I think about my classmates and what their parents did, there was this professional class, of course, doctors, lawyers, accountants plus government workers, but there was also a lot of small manufacturing, which meant that lots of people could have a high school diploma and still have a good job.

Now, by the time my class met for our 25th reunion, I looked this up recently, the area that I lived in in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the unemployment rate was 6.2%, and its manufacturing employment had basically dropped by a third since we had met for our 10th class reunion around 2001. And in my home county, the overall population has basically remained unchanged in this millennium. So since 2000, it has actually lost 10,000 people who were aged 25 to 44. So right those younger people who are going to drive the economy.

And in so many ways, I think the story of my hometown in Northeastern Pennsylvania is really similar to the story we heard in Portsmouth, Ohio and in similar places. And it's a story of college. It's a story of higher education. When I was born in 1973, basically places the size of my home county, which was around 350,000 people or so then, it was within five points of the national average of adults with a college degree. And that was the story everywhere because there were, of course, a lot fewer adults with a college degree. But more than that, they were just spread out all over the country.

Now today, my home county has had a 17% rise in adults with college degrees since I was born, right? That's great. But it's now 10 points behind the national average, not five points behind the national average. So in other words, even as places like Portsmouth and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania have gained college graduates, they simply just keep following further behind places. Now, Michael, places like Portsmouth and Wilkes-Barre and these other rural areas, they don't always lack for a higher education institution, as we heard from both Dawn and David.

So the question I think is, how do they leverage these institutions? And I'm really curious about the role of employer partnerships in particular in these communities. Because many of these partners that you used to work with at Guild, I'm thinking of Walmart in particular, they're huge employers in these communities. And they have, as Brēyana said, they have tech jobs. So it's not just technology companies with tech jobs. Part of the problem with these regional institutions is that they've just tried one-off partnerships with employers that are more national, and what they really need to be doing is plugging into more of these national networks, whether that's Guild or someone else.

Michael Horn:

Well, first, Jeff, I want to pause and say it's a great reflection from you on the changing nature of higher education in the country more broadly. It was also a great point by Brēyana, which is something we've talked about in the past in this show, that technology skills are pervasive in basically every industry at this point. And I think if you want to serve an employer that has a national footprint but has a strong regional presence, it's going to be really, really hard to do that in a one-off way.

It's frankly to the benefit of these employers to partner with one company, one marketplace in effect, that gives their employees lots of options from lots of different college providers for the different skills they need to acquire and the paths that those employees want to follow. With that said, I think there are a couple caveats. First, partnering with a marketplace isn't going to necessarily mean tons of enrollments coming your way. The best at scale online programs in these marketplace, I think it's safe to say that those are the ones that are taking the lion share of these enrollments.

And second, if you do have a regional employer, not a national employer with a strong regional presence, but a truly regional employer, and even better, frankly, a regional economic cluster of employers leaning in and educating for that cluster or helping develop even proactively that cluster is what's critical. And that's not going to mean partnering through an intermediary, but you doing it yourself. Now, I get it, you're going to tell me that those clusters don't always exist anymore with the move of industry and employment to cities. But this is where we are. And I just think there's not a one size fits all prescription to the question, but I think a set of considerations to figure out your circumstance.

But Jeff, if that's the role of the employer, what was interesting to me when we talked to Dawn as someone who left Portsmouth for the Bay Area in San Francisco and then she came back, she talked about the resilience of the area and the role of Shawnee State University and helping the community believe in itself, because it was a town previously known for opioids. Now, we've talked about this with Dan Greenstein who heads up the regional publics in Pennsylvania. Is this a moment where these institutions, these regional publics, can really exert their role as an anchor institution in the community?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. It's an interesting question, Michael. We traditionally thought of colleges and hospitals as these anchor institutions no matter where they were, in big cities or in small rural areas. But as we heard on our M&A episode recently, rural hospitals have been drying up as large healthcare chains buy them up, and then they also build new facilities in the suburbs instead. And then on higher ed, I just did this piece on application trends from The New York Times. And in that, we see that public flagships are overwhelmed with applications while the regional public universities, which are often in these rural towns, just go begging for students.

It's interesting that the Philadelphia Fed has put together this tool, which we will link to in the show notes, that shows how much different regions depend on healthcare and higher education. And I was playing with it recently after I read about it in The New York Times. And the places at the top of the dependence list, they were predictable. Places like Durham, Chapel Hill in North Carolina with Duke and Carolina there. But they also included smaller areas. I was interested to see Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, which is about 30 miles west of where I grew up, and includes the Geisinger Health Center, and Bloomsburg University, which is one of the state owned schools in the Pennsylvania system. And they make up 22% of local employment and 18% of regional income.

And I think the mistake that these regional institutions started to make beginning usually in the 1960s when there was a constant flow of students and they moved from teachers colleges to regional comprehensives, is that they try to mimic the flagships. They added schools within the university. They hired professors who were educated at the flagships, and frankly, they wanted to work at the flagships instead. And so what they did is they made their jobs more like flagship jobs and added these departments and research components to their jobs. They wanted to become research universities, even the leaders of these institutions wanted to become research institutions. And so these institutions put more money into research.

I recall years ago when we looked at this issue when I was at the Chronicle, we found that at the top 100 universities that received the most research dollars from the federal government, that 27 of them, so about a quarter of them at least doubled their own spending on research over a decade, which by the way, usually comes from student tuition dollars. Yet nearly half of those actually fell in the federal ranking of research universities. So they leverage their own dollars and they didn't really gain anything in the federal rankings.

In so many ways, these regional publics just lost their way. They did research that really wasn't relevant to their communities in order to look more like a research university. They built academic programs and graduate programs to look more like the flagship and become more prestigious. Maybe that worked, maybe it didn't, but it was really masked by an ever-growing number of students, and so they didn't care. And now the jig is up, Michael, so what do they do?

Michael Horn:

Wow. Well, first, that's a neat tool that you pointed to from the Fed of Philadelphia, but your broader point I think is right on. And it's something you and I have both written about and contributed to a book on, which is this mission creep of regional public universities to try to be all things to all people rather than what they were originally about, which was engines for their regions to both prepare students for employment, as you've noted originally, teachers, colleges in many cases, but in some cases also to do applied research that was useful to the region, to the extent that they did any research at all.

And so I think this points to what institutions need to do, which is go back to those roots, lean into the academic strengths that are in demand in their region, align those programs, shut down the ones where you don't have real expertise that either distinguishes you or you can't build up and there is not labor market demand for it. In other words, don't try to be a one size fits all institution because you cannot afford or sustain it. Now, I get it, Jeff, when an institution does this, there's going to be a ton of stories in the local papers and an inside higher ed in The Chronicle about how they're laying off this department or that one, and that's going to create some pressure.

But I think this is just reality and it's the essence of strategy, not just deciding what you do do, but consciously choosing what you don't do. And it's not that your students shouldn't have access to the courses, but here's the opportunity I think for partnerships. You can partner with other regional institutions. Or if you're consolidating, I suppose, with other regional campuses, much as I think the PASSHE system that Dan Greenstein leads is doing, to offer those courses because yes, maybe there's five or 10 students who want a certain program or course, but that doesn't mean that you have to provide it directly. You can partner to give that small percentage of students that need or want those academic offerings, those options. And really just focus, focus, focus.

I was recently talking to consultants who did this work with some rural K-12 schools in Texas that wanted to lean more into career technical education offerings, but they just couldn't sustain the great variety of offerings that students might want. And this is basically what they came up with, Jeff. I'll do this, you do that, this other district does this third thing. And it's worked really well in terms of student outcomes and engagement. But that's high school.

So I guess my last question for you, Jeff, as we wrap this up is this. How do you convince the local teenagers and adults to even try these campuses as they get remade in the ways that I'm suggesting? You obviously both have firsthand experience from a region like this, but you also profile the student who at least lives in one of these areas in your book, Who Gets In and Why. So how do we tackle that?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, Michael. That's right. As you know, there's a lot of skepticism around higher ed these days. And that skepticism is particularly felt among the rural kids, similar to the ones I grew up with. And I'm thinking of Chris. He was one of the students I profiled in my book who grew up not far from me and graduated near the top of his class of 100 at a small rural high school. And he ended up at Gettysburg College, but he left after a year to go to a community college near his home. He just didn't see the relevancy of what he was learning at Gettysburg to his day-to-day life back at home.

And I think that's a big piece of this. College is expensive. College, as Lisa DeMora recently reminded us, it's hard. So to tackle this issue in rural communities or frankly anywhere, is to break it down into smaller chunks. It's not about enrolling for a semester, which is a big lift financially as well, but bring it into the high school through dual enrollment or bring it down to individual classes. It's why I'm really interested in this new partnership between Arizona State, YouTube and Crash Course that aims to rethink the first year of college.

And as a constant reminder, of course, I'm a professor of practice and a special advisor at ASU. And what ASU is doing is it's offering four courses that are seven weeks long, including things like English comp, college math, US history, and human communication. These are the types of classes that you would find in the first year of college, and students can watch the course content on the Study Hall channel on the YouTube for free. And if they want to take the entire course through ASU, it's $25. And to receive credit from ASU, that could then transfer to other colleges, students pay $400.

And what I like about it is it's not only a way for students to try college at a low cost, but it's also a way for high school students to get a headstart on college or to think about whether they are college going material. It really eases the path into post-secondary education and training, Michael, which I think is important as we try to get more people on that path.

And on that hopeful note, and I think there's so much opportunity for higher ed to serve these rural regions, we're going to leave you with that on Future U today. Thank you for joining us, and we'll see you next time.

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