August 8, 2019

A Promise for Community-Based Educational Opportunities in Rural Communities

Rural education map

This is the second post in a five-part series on challenges and opportunity in rural communities.

Other posts in this series: 

Many rural residents experience difficulties in attaining a high-quality education. On average, rural public schools receive smaller shares of state education funding. Families may have to travel longer distances to access libraries, as the number of bookmobiles operating in the United States (U.S.) decreased by more than a third in the past 25 years. Adults wanting to access higher education may find it difficult to travel to colleges and universities, especially across rural areas of the West. The Chronicle of Higher Education found the largest shares of adults living more than 60 minutes away from a college were in Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana which are among the country’s most rural states. 

Enterprise’s partners are helping rural communities respond to these challenges. Last year, Enterprise provided grant awards to support rural and tribal non-profit organizations working to improve educational opportunities in their communities.

These Community Development Corporations (CDCs), Community Housing Development Organizations (CHDOs) and tribal organizations are helping low-income residents and farmworkers more easily access formal education and training opportunities, including GEDs, associate degrees, and vocational-technical skills and credentials. Partners also provide adult basic education, internships, and formal and informal learning opportunities through public art spaces and community centers.  

This is the third blog in our series about opportunity challenges experienced by rural residents and innovative solutions being developed by our partners. Here, we highlight the education dimension of Enterprise’s Opportunity360 framework, which points out the challenges and opportunities rural residents have in accessing educational opportunities. 

What is education?

Different kinds of educational opportunities have been found to influence outcomes of children and adults. The Arts Education Partnership reports that students engaging in arts instruction become better readers and writers and improve their problem-solving abilities. Children who attend Early Head Start and transition to Head Start have been found to be more ready for kindergarten than children who do not attend. First-year undergraduate students who used electronic resources and books from an academic library also had significantly improved odds of graduating over withdrawing from higher education. 

While we recognize the importance of this diversity, we will focus our attention on the school system. Access to these programs is highlighted in the education dimension of our Opportunity360 framework, as measured at a neighborhood level through a composite index score of educational attainment.

Our education index is calculated using three standardized measures of educational attainment: the percentage of adults with a high school diploma or higher; the percentage of adults with some college or an associate degree or higher; and the percentage of adults attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher. A score measuring educational attainment as an outcome does not perfectly represent people’s access to educational programs. However, it is used to draw attention to issues of accessing educational opportunities in rural communities which are difficult to measure directly.

What is the educational system like for rural residents?

Many rural communities rely on school districts and colleges to provide residents more than educational opportunities alone. School districts are often an area’s largest employer and serve as important places for local social and cultural activities, recreation, and civic engagement. Rural community colleges have been found to spur job growth and support positive social outcomes. In some rural areas, schools and colleges play an important role in the health and well-being of children and adults — serving as locations for summer meal programs and affordably-priced health care. 

Despite schools’ important roles, many of these institutions are challenged to get consistent, adequate funding. Rural public school districts are often funded from a smaller tax base. A larger share of these funds may also be used to support transportation, as rural children are more likely than suburban children to have bus rides of 30 minutes or longer. State and local governments also have no obligation to provide funding to tribal colleges and universities which served about 28,000 mostly rural students in 2016. 

Many of these institutions also find it difficult to hire and retain qualified staff. Rural school districts lack access to professional development opportunities and may require teachers to prepare for multiple subjects, take on extracurricular activities, and serve students at different grade levels. Rural college and vocational teachers can make much more working in their industries as electricians or nurses. And, teachers of all ranks experience issues of social and professional isolation which can contribute to difficulties in hiring and retention. 

Above: Map of education scores in tribal areas and reservations

Where are rural residents especially challenged to access educational opportunities?

A look at our Opportunity360 education outcomes scores can help us see where it may be especially difficult for rural residents to access educational opportunities. These scores represent nationwide percentile rankings of census tracts. A score of 50 means that a tract is in the 50th percentile—half of all tracts in the country have a higher score and half have a lower score.

A map of the country’s rural education index scores helps us see the location of tracts with lower scores. Looking at the map, we can see many of the lighter blue tracts are found across rural Appalachia, the Deep South, and into New Mexico. In 2017, about 10-30% of all rural census tracts located in the 12 states making up this region have education scores in the lowest quartile. These states include West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico. 

A more detailed map (top of post) shows many of the country’s rural, tribal areas and reservations also have scores included in the light blue color which suggests that larger shares of residents living in many of these communities may find it difficult to attain a formal education. A look at these communities shows that about 70% of the census tracts intersecting tribal areas and reservations in the continental U.S. had scores of less than 50, which is probably an underestimate due to data limitations. A score of 50 is the 50th percentile in the nation, with a score of 100 as the highest.

How are partners innovating to improve access to educational opportunities for rural residents?

In response to these challenges, Enterprise’s partners are working to develop and implement creative and innovative community-based solutions. Each is designed to help improve the ability of residents to access education and training opportunities in ways that support their abilities and interests. 

In Arizona, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) is using a $50,000 grant from Enterprise to support their ongoing creative placemaking work and their emerging work in workforce development and economic empowerment. Specifically, ISDA is developing a photovoltaic and solar thermal training module for their building maintenance and repair apprentice program. They are also creating a permanent public art space that recognizes and honors local O’odham and Mexican people through murals, sculptures, and other visual arts. Art displayed in the space will recognize younger adults who have attained GEDs and journeyman cards, as well as young chef graduates of culinary school.

The Farmworker Housing Development Corporation (FHDC) in Woodburn, Oregon, is also using funding from Enterprise to preserve a community education center. FHDC opened the Cipriano Ferrel Education Center in 2003 to provide a place for farmworkers and low-income members of the community to access education, social, and workforce development programming and activities. Last year, this site served more than 150 low-income resident families, non-resident community members, and several local partners. It also serves as the site for two preschool programs helping rural children ages 4 years and younger prepare for kindergarten. 


Across the country, many rural residents experience difficulties accessing educational opportunities. This may be especially challenging in tribal areas and reservations. With support from Enterprise, organizations across the U.S. are helping respond to these needs.

For more information about how Enterprise and its partners are supporting rural and tribal residents, visit Enterprise’s Rural and Native American Initiative

Opp360 logo

For full access to our tools and resources, please provide the information below.

We use this data to better understand our users; we do not sell or share this data. By providing this information, you can expect to receive newsletters and other updates from Opportunity360.