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Adults in rural areas need access to education too

For rural Pennsylvanians, a college education can be hard to come by. It’s not an issue of desire. It’s an issue of access.

I live in Warren County. I love where I live, but for many here college is out of reach because we have so few nearby college institutions. Just 19.5% of Warren County residents 25 years or older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, lagging far below the national average of 36%.

Northern Pennsylvania Regional College offers affordable associate degrees in the social sciences, liberal studies, business administration, criminal justice, applied technology and early childhood education, as well as workforce training in areas such as construction, tourism and hospitality management, and manufacturing. Jamestown Community College also has a campus here.

But for those wanting bachelor’s or master’s degree leading to in-demand professions such as nursing, education, IT and business, this dearth of education options creates a barrier to career pathways. The nearest four-year public college, St. Bonaventure, is located an hour away in New York state. This type of extended commute makes it difficult for students to balance education with other work and family responsibilities.

We want our rural community to thrive, not face a declining population because people move away for a better education or career opportunity. A recent analysis of census data conducted by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, estimates the commonwealth saw its rural population shrink by 4.7% from 2010 to 2020, among the steepest declines in the nation. Though Pennsylvania has slowly been regaining jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, Warren County’s unemployment rate mirrors the state’s for November at 5.7%, higher than the national rate of 4.2%.

An obvious solution for unemployment, as well as underemployment, for many in Warren County will be gaining relevant skills and knowledge through online learning. Online education serves as one of the fastest growing segments of higher education in the U.S. and is a key to access for non-traditional students living in rural areas.

In the competency-based online model, students who can learn faster or spend more time on their schoolwork can demonstrate their mastery and advance at their own pace. Through this unique, asynchronous approach, students accelerate through their learning at their individual pace, fitting their studies into the spaces of their lives. With customized support and mentorship, each student progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material.

This approach–the benefits of which I have seen at Western Governors University–expands opportunity and access to jobs. I have witnessed first-hand how our programs change our students lives for the better, because they are empowered to earn degrees and improve their livelihoods.

But in order for rural students to enroll in online learning, they must have access to highspeed broadband internet. About five percent of rural Pennsylvanians have no broadband options available to them, but I believe we will see improvements soon thanks to the hard work and determination of many.

In addition to Warren County Commissioner Tricia Durbin’s and local Broadband Task Force efforts, last month Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes $65 billion in grants to states for broadband deployment to address access in rural areas. In Pennsylvania, this means a minimum of $100 million will be available to address broadband infrastructure in the state. Just before the holidays, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed and Governor Wolf approved legislation creating the PA Broadband Development Authority, charged with developing a statewide broadband plan and distribute grant money for expanded broadband access.

Improving access to broadband internet for Pennsylvania’s rural communities enjoys bi-partisan support and is considered a key factor in preparing residents for in-demand careers and in providing local companies with the workforce they need to thrive. I hope we will see soon a future in which every Warren County resident who wants to earn a degree of any type and in any discipline will have the opportunity to do so through online education, and with access to highspeed internet to achieve it.

Catrina Leamon is manager of evaluation faculty at Western Governors University, which serves 2,500 students and 5,000 alumni in Pennsylvania. She lives in Youngsville.

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