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Recruiting for Higher Ed in Rural America

While the “classic” image of higher education is often focused on urban and suburban campuses, institutions in rural areas need attention too. According to a new survey from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, more and more people are considering leaving their current jobs and making a shift to a quieter, more low-pressure life. In this new environment, what should colleges and universities know when trying to recruit faculty and staff for rural campuses?


What Does Rural America Look Like Today?

The phrase “rural America” may conjure up a wide variety of ideas, impressions, and images, so let’s start with a uniform definition. According to statistics from the Economic Research Service, under the US Department of Agriculture, a “rural” area is defined as a non-metro area. Those areas, in turn, are defined by some combination of:

  • open countryside,
  • rural towns (places with fewer than 2,500 people), and
  • urban areas with populations ranging from 2,500 to 49,999 that are not part of larger labor market areas (metropolitan areas).

As of 2020, the same government data counted approximately 46 million U.S. residents living in rural areas, comprising 14 percent of the total U.S. population. While rural areas vary widely in their socio-economic situations, there are a few trends worth considering, especially when having conversations about higher education in those areas.


Only 72 percent of rural residents overall had moderate- or high-speed broadband available in their census blocks. That number drops to 63 percent when it comes to rural residents who live in “persistent poverty counties.” In its 2018 report, the USDA also noted what it called the “graying” of rural areas. This means the “vast majority” of counties in which more than 20 percent of the population is aged 65 and older. “Graying” can be attributed to a number of factors, from retirees choosing to move to a “quieter” area to younger people moving out of these areas to start their careers.


All that being said, many people – at all stages of life – are thinking more seriously about low-key lifestyles, especially following the difficult years of the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Families may be considering a move to raise their kids in a quieter location (and the rise of remote work is making it more plausible), and employees may be looking for jobs in a less stressful, less bustling (and often less expensive) environment.


Higher Education in Rural Areas

When recruiting for roles in higher education that are located in more rural areas, it’s important to keep in mind what higher ed even looks like in those regions. For instance, Inside Higher Ed reports that enrollment at rural colleges and universities is down, but the exact numbers vary by area and by institution type. Rural community colleges have seen overall growth, but that growth has also widened the gap between public and private institutions: enrollment at public community colleges actually fell 9.9 percent, while private nonprofit enrollment ticked up with a 1.4 percent increase. For-profit institutions, in contrast, saw a huge 22.8 percent rise in enrollment in rural areas.


For institutions offering multiple degree types, rural enrollment is down across the board. Inside Higher Ed cites more research that shows a 3.7 percent enrollment decline for public, rural colleges that offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Private nonprofits offering those degrees had a similar but slightly smaller drop, at 3 percent, and comparable for-profits saw a 4.9 percent decline. Rural public doctoral institutions saw an enrollment drop of 3.3 percent, while private nonprofits declined by 1.8 percent for private nonprofits and for-profits remained at the same levels.


Prospective employees of these institutions need to have at least a baseline understanding of the factors affecting these numbers. USDA data shows a geographic gap both in income and in education levels: rural household income is between 20 and 25 percent lower than their urban counterparts, making any form of higher education less affordable from the get-go. In 2019, the share of young adults in the 25-34 age bracket with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 39 percent in urban areas, but only 21 percent in rural areas.


Perceptions about education also color the higher education landscape in rural areas. One 2017 analysis in The Atlantic summarized a few of the major challenges facing rural higher education and their communities:

  • Students’ perceptions of the education required are molded by the history of their communities, many agricultural or industrial working-class.
  • Students feel a practical need to “just get a job” right out of high school.
  • A community sense of pessimism about the future, particularly in areas where a community’s historic jobs and industries have dried up.
  • Fewer “role model” adults who have completed bachelor’s degrees or higher.
  • More difficulty attracting quality teachers, especially to teach college-prep level classes.
  • Lifestyle and community challenges, including poverty, drug use, physical and mental health, and underdeveloped physical and digital infrastructure.


All of these factors, and more, affect the state of higher education in rural communities. In turn, these are all important for any institution to consider when developing strategies for recruiting staff. The two main questions are “What does our community need?” and “What do our candidates want?”


Recruiting at Rural Colleges and Universities

Staff at rural colleges and universities face a number of unique challenges and situations. Like many jobs, it’s not for everyone, but for the right person, it might be a dream job! The key is finding the right match of person, not just to role, but also to location, and having total transparency through the whole process.


Recruiting isn’t just about getting someone hired into a role; it’s also about ensuring that they will stay in that role, or at least with the institution, for a length of time.  Transparency during the hiring process is key. While it’s important, of course, to highlight the positive aspects of the rural area when recruiting, painting an unrealistic picture will only lead to eventual unhappy staff and poor retention. Benefits to highlight might include lower costs of living, an easier commute, more time with one’s own family, a beautiful landscape and/or climate, more of a personal connection to the community and students, more of an opportunity to contribute ideas and have them implemented, and getting to potentially make a real difference in the lives of students and the community as a whole.


One major concern for many institutions seeking to recruit in a rural area is diversity, both intellectually and in terms of demographics such as race. It’s important to understand the nuances of this challenge, depending on the demographics and culture of the surrounding community; employees will not be interested, no matter how great the role on paper, if they are concerned about feeling unwelcome or unsafe in the community where they live. Having a strong, active, and demonstrable commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) is one major factor, but each individual institution will need to do the work to understand the unique needs of their institutions and locations.


When developing a recruitment strategy, consider some combination of the following:

  • Broaden requirements and cast a bigger net, understanding that rural life may be a dealbreaker for some top candidates.
  • Network directly with teaching and graduate programs to recruit new grads.
  • Consider setting up a teaching fellows program to attract early-career faculty.
  • Set up meetings for candidates with current faculty and staff, or at least have some current employee testimonials ready to go.
  • Consider specifically recruiting candidates with links to the area, who might have an emotional interest in returning to their communities.
  • Hire a professional Search company that has the resources to cast the wider net you want. Actively recruiting someone usually results in a longer-term engagement.


Recruiting for rural higher education requires some creative thinking, without a doubt. However, with the right candidates in the right roles,  your institution can continue its legacy as a  true pride point of its community.


By Ruben Moreno

About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.” Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search and Higher Education Executive Search practice specializing in identifying, assessing, recruiting, and onboarding key executives in HR, Diversity, Enrollment, Student Affairs, and Advancement. Ruben is a thought leader who has helped place hundreds of executives. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their organization and add value beyond executive search.


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