The Challenges and Benefits of Pursuing Bachelor’s Programs at Rural-Serving Community Colleges

Community college students wearing backpacks walk to class.
April 15, 2024


In spring 2023, Marion Technical College, a rural-serving institution located one hour outside of Columbus, Ohio, became the state’s first community college to offer a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. This development marked a turning point in the institution’s history. For the first time, the college would be offering a bachelor’s degree, in part because the closest four-year university was facing overwhelming demand for its nursing program, with over 500 qualified applicants vying for just 150 seats.

In rural communities, access to four-year colleges is often limited, and residents frequently rely on community colleges as their entry point to higher education. According to analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated in 2023, only 21 percent of rural adults hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 36 percent of urban residents. Overall, four out of five college students who begin at a community college plan to transfer and earn their bachelor’s degree elsewhere, but in reality, only one in six students actually transfers. Recognizing this opportunity gap and driven by the urgent demand for Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) graduates, the state allowed Marion Tech to establish its own BSN completion program for nurses with associate degrees (RN-BSN). Ohio’s inaugural community college RN-BSN program also has robust support from community partners.

The state is one of 23 that allow at least some community colleges to offer baccalaureate programs (CCBs). Community colleges are often deeply connected to their communities, positioning them to offer academic programs that prepare residents for employment opportunities in the local workforce. Given the increasing demand for bachelor’s degrees, evolving job requirements, and the growing need for specialized skills in an ever-changing job market, community colleges can serve as a key access point to a bachelor’s degree for many students. However, establishing CCBs at rural-serving institutions can present its own set of challenges.

This brief delves into the landscape of rural-serving community colleges in states that allow CCBs. It examines the characteristics of these programs, including enrollment patterns and the range of programs available. We also conducted interviews with seven rural college administrators exploring the challenges and benefits of pursuing these programs and learned that setting up a bachelor’s program for a rural-serving community college requires alignment in three contexts: state (funding and political will); institutional (students, faculty, and staff); and local (labor market need and economic development potential). While many of these components may factor into colleges’ decisions about pursuing a bachelor’s program, rural-serving or otherwise, colleges that are smaller and more remote or that have labor markets more oriented toward small employers will need to account for the ways rurality impacts their resources and mission to serve their communities.

A Landscape of Rural-Serving Community Colleges in CCB States

The landscape of rural-serving community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees is complex. First of all, identifying which colleges are “rural” presents its own set of challenges. While there are many ways to do this, we use the rural-serving institution (RSI) metric developed by the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges to construct our group of rural-serving colleges. We chose this route because the RSI incorporates multiple measures of rurality and college contributions relevant to rural locations, students, and economies, as opposed to one measure (e.g., the urbanization categories used in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System or IPEDS) limited to the relative rurality of a college’s primary campus.[1] Limiting our analysis to states where, theoretically, any community college could offer a bachelor’s degree provided a subset of 17 states.[2] We then used the RSI metric to identify rural-serving institutions, yielding a group of 141 community colleges in our subset of states.[3] We conducted interviews with seven administrators serving in leadership positions at a college within our group of 141 institutions. Figure 1 shows variation among states in our cohort with at least five rural-serving community colleges in terms of the availability of CCB programs.

In Florida and Washington, every predominantly associate-granting, rural-serving public college currently offers at least one bachelor’s degree program. These two states first authorized CCB programs in 2002 and 2005, respectively. Since initial authorizing legislation, CCB programs have reached scale across all community colleges in Florida and nearly all community colleges in Washington.

In contrast, no rural-serving community colleges in Missouri, South Carolina, or Oregon offer bachelor’s degrees. These states authorized CCB programs in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively, placing them among the newer states allowing bachelor’s degrees at community colleges. Some elements of state CCB legislation may help explain the dearth of rural-serving CCB institutions in these states, in addition to the fact that their CCB authorization is more recent. South Carolina only allows bachelor’s degrees at community colleges in advanced manufacturing, and Oregon excludes students in upper-division classes—i.e., those in bachelor’s degree programs—from counting in state formula funding. Missouri’s state law regarding CCBs limits these to areas of study where professional requirements or employer expectations have risen to the bachelor’s level and limits CCB authorization to instances where partnership with a university was not a viable way to expand bachelor’s opportunities to local students. Still other states, like California, Texas, and Ohio, have a mix of rural-serving community colleges with and without bachelor’s degrees.

State Environment

Figure 1 above shows that state context matters for the development of CCB programs at rural-serving institutions. Our interviews with administrators at rural-serving community colleges in CCB-authorizing states emphasized how both formal and informal elements of their state’s environment influenced the decision to pursue offering a bachelor’s program. State funding policies for community colleges can either help or hinder rural-serving community colleges interested in offering bachelor’s degrees. The state higher education ecosystem of public universities and community colleges—both in state CCB policy and informal relationships between institutions—can shape leaders’ perspectives on the feasibility and desirability of launching bachelor’s programs. In the following sections, we discuss how state contexts may influence rural-serving community college leaders’ thinking about bachelor’s programs.

State Public Higher Education Ecosystems and CCB Programs

Policy and politics among public universities and community colleges may impact the difficulty of launching a CCB program, from the process of authorizing any CCB program to the sense of which institutions should offer bachelor’s degrees and why. Some state CCB policies are more friendly toward university–community college partnerships (e.g., transfer agreements or university centers on community college campuses) than toward bachelor’s degrees conferred by the community college itself. Consider the example of Missouri above, where community colleges wishing to offer a bachelor’s degree must demonstrate that a partnership with a university to offer the needed degree was not feasible.

Some of our interviewees expressed a preference for such university partnerships, owing to financial risks involved in launching a new bachelor’s program without additional resources. As one administrator put it, “If we’ve got [a university partner] who’s also invested in allowing students to take classes on our campus or at their campus while still taking classes here, that’s a great way for us to be able to offer more things that we just can’t do financially or for other reasons.” In this sense, a CCB serves as a means to increase local access to bachelor’s programs. The focus is less on the community college offering upper-division coursework and conferring the bachelor’s degree itself, and more on ensuring the needed bachelor’s degree program is accessible to local residents, even if a partner university is the one conferring that degree. This same administrator continued, “So having this [university] partnership is critical because...we might not be able to provide all the services that our community would need.”

Of course, there are times when the community college is the only local institution—or the best positioned one—that could offer a needed bachelor’s degree. For instance, some colleges are located far enough from public universities to make commuting infeasible. This makes it easier to make the case that a new bachelor’s program poses little risk of program duplication or diverting enrollment from public universities. Access to a local bachelor’s degree option can serve residents in a rural service area who may not otherwise pursue a bachelor’s degree at all. As one administrator put it, “There is a physical barrier between us and any kind of urban area. People just can’t travel regularly to get to a place where they can take those degrees. So, to be able to stay here is something that would be very valuable for our students.”

While the case for a CCB at a rural-serving college may be eased by physical distance, universities’ fears of competition from CCBs may not be immediately quelled by the sheer distance between their campuses. One interviewee’s college had recently launched its first bachelor’s program, though not without some resistance. “We have a good arrangement with [our nearest public university],” he said. “They were a little less enthusiastic, but they’re two and a half hours away from our main campus, so it wasn’t a big deal.” In the end, the relationship between this college and its public university partner was preserved despite the university’s initial hesitation, and both institutions, separated by over 100 miles, continue to offer bachelor’s degrees on their respective campuses.

State Financial Context and CCB Programs

For colleges where a CCB program seems like the best way to meet local needs, leaders have to decide whether it is financially feasible. The way states structure funding for community colleges has considerable implications for if, when, and how rural-serving community colleges choose to pursue a bachelor’s program. Analysis published in 2023 from the Urban Institute found that in most states, rural community colleges receive equal or slightly higher state funding per full-time enrolled student than other community colleges.[4] The question of whether these colleges offer bachelor’s degrees may also have implications for their state funding. For example, Nevada community colleges receive more state funding for completion of upper-division courses than for lower-division courses, which incentivizes offering and supporting student success in CCB classes. On the other hand, California community colleges receive more in performance funding when a student earns an Associate of Arts degree—designed to facilitate transfer to a university—than when a student earns a bachelor’s degree, providing a small disincentive for CCB programs relative to transfer-oriented programs. These parts of state funding formulas are usually small components of the budget, but for rural institutions, especially those that are small, all funding implications matter.

While rural-serving colleges may have similar funding per student—or even a bit more—than other community colleges in their states, the additional one-time costs of starting a new program at the bachelor’s level may present challenges for these institutions. For example, particularly small rural-serving colleges, even if they have more funding per student, will have less funding overall, which can impact their ability to hire faculty and staff. Expenses on the front end could include undergoing a substantive change process with the college’s regional accreditor; pursuing program-level accreditation; hiring new faculty or funding continued education for current faculty; or enhancing academic, career, and student services to meet the needs of students at the bachelor’s degree level. One of our interviewees said, “Our bandwidth is limited, and our budget is constrained, especially for a small rural college. Even if there’s a substantial demand in the community, setting up such programs takes time and effort.”

Another interviewee expressed similar feelings, noting that the early costs required to develop a bachelor’s program could halt progress: “Anything that requires a large and initial investment isn’t really realistic for us unless someone else provides that funding.” While this individual’s state does not offer startup grants to community colleges launching bachelor’s programs, there is some precedent for these resources elsewhere. In Texas and California, the first CCBs were created through pilot programs limited to a few institutions, with funding allocated to offset these initial costs. While both states have transitioned CCBs from time-limited pilot initiatives to a permanent fixture, they also ceased offering startup resources to colleges building new bachelor’s programs. Many institutions in these states have managed to launch programs anyway, but the challenge remains formidable for those that are smaller.

Another interviewee considered how the college might have to think broadly about meeting initial costs if it decides to pursue offering a bachelor’s degree in the future, saying, “When you start something up, how do you fund it, being a small rural institution? Our cash flow has ebbs and flows to it. So we’d [have to] be very purposeful in how we set it up.” Other interviewees considered the implications of using tuition to cover the expenses of operating a bachelor’s program and how to strike a balance between increasing revenue and keeping the program accessible to students. One asked, “What is the tuition that we’ll have to charge, and the fees? Because if we charge so much that it’s the same or more than a university charges, that’s not going to work. And obviously it’s got to be more than what we charge for our two-year degrees.” Hoping to avoid expensive tuition for bachelor’s-level courses, one administrator proposed a few strategies the college could try to take if it decides to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the future. “We’d like to utilize grants and appeal for state aid if any was available. We’d have to be very creative and possibly even do a pilot: Start small and then slowly build it up.” The willingness to take innovative strategies to fund a program and commitment to keep programs as affordable as possible, given state resources for CCBs or the lack thereof, characterized our interviewees’ thoughts about funding new bachelor’s programs.

Institutional Capacity

Rural-serving community colleges must also consider their internal capacity to develop, launch, and sustain a bachelor’s program. Two key components of institutional capacity that surfaced in our interviews with rural college leaders were program enrollment and faculty and staff ability to take on a new bachelor’s program. One interviewee offered the two highest-priority questions to answer before pursuing a bachelor’s program: “Can this be a sustainable program for us? Secondly, can we do it without a large investment?” In the following sections, we discuss institutional enrollment and considerations for instructional staffing and program costs for rural-serving community colleges.

Institutional Size and Program Enrollment

Just because a college is rural-serving does not mean it is small. Some rural-serving institutions are close enough to urbanized areas to draw significant enrollment from outer suburban and exurban communities. Other rural colleges in more remote areas have such massive service areas that their enrollment is high, despite low population density. Given the initial start-up costs of CCB programs and concerns about sustainable enrollment, we hypothesized that rural-serving community colleges with bachelor’s degrees would have considerably higher enrollment than those without. As an interviewee from a non-CCB institution noted, regarding the possibility of launching a bachelor’s program, “Our funding model very much depends on having enough students to provide the tuition and state support to maintain a program. So we’re pretty sensitive about what the enrollment is going to look like.” We did find a difference in median college enrollment across the 17 states included in this analysis, shown in Figure 2 below. For both rural-serving and non rural-serving community colleges, those with bachelor’s programs had higher enrollment than those that did not. Enrollment in CCB programs is typically, though not always, relatively small. Therefore, these differences in enrollment between CCB and non-CCB institutions cannot be explained by students in bachelor’s programs alone.

Looking only at rural-serving institutions, this pattern of higher enrollment at CCB institutions than non-CCB institutions varied in magnitude but held true across all states in our analysis except one: California. In the Golden State, community colleges interested in launching bachelor’s programs have faced significant pushback from peers within the California State University system because of concerns about program duplication. It could be, then, that the most remote rural-serving institutions in California in the most sparsely populated areas may have been most successful thus far in demonstrating unfilled need than rural-serving institutions closer to suburban and urban areas.

As Figure 3 shows, rural community colleges in Texas with bachelor’s programs had, on average, approximately 50 percent higher headcount enrollment than other rural-serving colleges with no bachelor’s programs. Texas currently limits the opportunity to start bachelor’s programs to community colleges meeting a threshold of $4 billion of taxable property in the institutional taxing district to be able to offer a bachelor’s degree in nursing and $6 billion for any other program. Currently, each institution in the state below that threshold is considered rural-serving. Since Texas community colleges draw significant resources from local tax revenue, this policy may explain why there is such a large gap in median enrollment between rural community colleges with and without bachelor’s programs.

Availability of Faculty

Implementing a new program can be particularly difficult when it requires hiring new faculty and staff. Rural-serving institutions may already grapple with challenges in recruitment and retention of faculty members, and both the requisite credentials and specialized expertise necessary for teaching bachelor’s programs can be exceptionally hard to come by. While a college may already have business faculty that hold master’s degrees, for example, the difficulty intensifies when it comes to programs such as those in allied health professions, where programs may be required to have a certain number or share of faculty with terminal degrees. We interviewed one administrator who noted that assessment of faculty capacity around a new program at any level, including a new bachelor’s degree, is essential to consider, saying, “My [state and region], unfortunately, is not an attractive spot for faculty that are in high demand. So if you’re interested in starting a degree program, you better be sure that you can attract the faculty to come teach it [who] want to live in this area, and that’s something that probably goes under-evaluated at times. But it’s pretty important to make sure that you can, as far as sustainability, continue to attract and retain quality faculty to be able to deliver it.”

Those qualified to teach in high-demand fields may also earn more in their respective professions than in an academic role at a community college, creating competition for resource-strapped colleges. As one administrator pointed out, “It’s challenging enough for us to attract faculty and staff in a rural location, and recruiting individuals at the PhD level is even more challenging, particularly for a small rural community college that often operates with limited financial resources.”

Local Labor Markets

Rural Employers and CCB Programs

Community colleges proposing bachelor’s degree programs need to demonstrate that their proposed programs will meet a need in the local labor market. However, according to several interviewees, that may look different for them than for a larger community college serving a primarily urban or suburban area. The typical employer in these interviewees’ service areas is simply not large enough to promise to employ a significant number of graduates with bachelor’s degrees. One interviewee said, “We couldn’t identify strong employers willing to commit to hiring graduates in our region, even if we were to produce a certain number of graduates each year.” Rural-serving community colleges may need to assess workforce demand across many small employers rather than leaning on larger employers. One interviewee told us, “Being as rural as we are, we don’t have a lot of industry in our area. We don’t have so-called big business. The economy is generally proprietorship, with relatively small firms compared to other places in the US.”

That said, rural areas with strong small business communities—or economic development plans to foster small business growth—could benefit from bachelor’s programs geared toward entrepreneurship. One administrator we interviewed said, “Being small and rural, there are a number of small mom-and-pop shops. There are a lot of people who start brand-new businesses, and having a little bit more knowledge could definitely help them with their management and the establishment and everyday running of a business.” While graduates from CCB programs may not fill a job vacancy at a local employer, such education has the potential to support their preparedness to start or sustain a business, and colleges need to come up with ways to demonstrate that value.

Where rural-serving community colleges can demonstrate a need for a bachelor’s program, they may also wish to emphasize how many graduates stay in the local area after earning their credential. This factor is especially important for workforce retention. One college leader hoping to guide their institution toward a BSN degree in the next few years noted that residents who left the area to earn a nursing degree tended not to return: “We lose them. Whereas, if they get the degree here, if they get the training, they’re more likely to stay and not leave.” A bachelor’s program in nursing represents more than a local opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree; it comprises part of a longer-term strategy to ensure a qualified workforce with local roots, practicing in the communities they call home. As another college leader put it, “I think we’re doing an important thing. Even if the population is much smaller, there are still needs, and the quality of life is impacted [based on] whether we have those appropriate degree programs or not.”

Conclusion and Recommendations: Respecting Rural Roots

When state, institutional, and local support align, a new CCB program can open doors for students who want to stay in their rural communities while continuing their education. As one administrator told us, “We’ve heard things from our students who graduated, like, ‘We’re comfortable with [this community college]. We know the instructors. It’s local. We know we can go get help if we need it.’” Below, we offer recommendations for state policy and for rural-serving community colleges considering the possibility of a bachelor’s degree at their institution to serve their community.

Recommendations for States

  • Ensure lack of funding doesn’t keep rural-serving colleges from starting bachelor’s programs where there is demonstrated need. Consider providing start-up resources to colleges approved to offer a new CCB; make a strong case for facilitating economic development, reducing poverty, improving community health, or other state priorities.
  • Allow rural-serving community colleges to develop bachelor’s programs. In Texas and Idaho, community colleges must meet a threshold of taxable property value in their taxing districts to be able to propose or launch a bachelor’s program, regardless of whether the college can demonstrate economic need for the program or not. As of 2020, each of the 12 community colleges in Texas below the $4 billion taxable property value threshold laid out in state law to start a bachelor’s degree in nursing is rural-serving, as are all but one of the 19 colleges below the $6 billion threshold to start a bachelor’s program in another subject area. This means several such community colleges are prohibited from providing this level of education to local residents, even if the institution is the only access to public higher education within commuting distance.
  • Give community colleges, including rural-serving community colleges, access to high-quality, real-time labor market data. Where colleges struggle to afford access to or to analyze labor market data, state higher education and workforce development agencies could provide useful information to help guide program offerings, including identifying where a bachelor’s program may be needed at a community college.

Recommendations for Colleges

  • Consider possible bachelor’s programs as part of local economic development strategy. In labor markets with a high proportion of small businesses, consider where bachelor’s programs in entrepreneurship and management training could help residents develop their own businesses in addition to supporting graduates’ paths into existing jobs.
  • Think broadly about how to sustain enrollment in bachelor’s programs. Consider pursuing consortium models linking multiple community colleges to deliver one bachelor’s degree. While consortia can be challenging to develop, models like this reduce the pressure on individual institutions to enroll a large number of students each year to sustain the program by pooling students from partner institutions.
  • Support continued education for current faculty when developing bachelor’s programs. Rural-serving colleges may find it challenging to hire new faculty where regional or program-specific accreditors require faculty with terminal or advanced degrees to direct bachelor’s programs or teach upper-division courses. Offer support to current faculty willing to earn an additional degree. Trinity Valley Community College in Texas, for example, supported several nursing faculty members as they earned doctoral degrees, meeting accreditation requirements and honoring these faculty members’ commitment to the institution and community.

Appendix: Data and Methods

Data used in this brief came from multiple sources. Interview data were collected during 30-minute phone or Zoom calls with rural college administrators during the fall of 2022, formed around questions about community college bachelor’s programs in rural settings. We used data from New America’s national inventory of CCB programs published in 2021 and updated these data to include new CCB institutions by consulting the 2023 Community College Baccalaureate Association program inventory and reviewing college and state higher education agency websites. We merged this data set with the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges’ Rural-Serving Institution (RSI) dataset to identify rural-serving colleges in CCB authorizing states to include in this analysis. These data, other than the RSI indicator itself, were drawn from U.S. Census Data and the 2020 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Quantitative analyses are limited to states where any community college could provide a bachelor’s degree program, yielding a dataset including predominantly associate-granting public institutions in 17 states.


We are very grateful for the many colleagues whose contributions made this work possible. First, we are honored and thankful to have financial support from Ascendium Education Group to undertake this research, and we are especially thankful for the thoughtfulness and encouragement of Sue Cui and Kirstin Yeado. Chris Geary and Esther Ishimwe provided invaluable support early in the project with data collection and coding. We are grateful to Iris Palmer and Sabrina Detlef for their thoughtful editing. Our communications team at New America remains unmatched in their dedication and support, and we offer our thanks to Katherine Portnoy, Natalya Brill, Mandy Dean, Naomi Morduch Toubman, Jodi Narde, Kelley Gardner, and Zoe Reier. Finally, we thank the seven administrators at rural-serving community colleges who allowed us to interview them and generously shared their time and perspectives on this important topic.


[1] For a detailed discussion of the differences between rural-serving and rural-located colleges, see Ty C. McNamee, Rural-Located Institutions and Rural-Serving Institutions: What We Know and Where We Go from Here (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2024); and Andrew Koricich, Vanessa A. Sansone, Alisa Hicklin Fryar, Cecilia M. Orphan, and Kevin R. McClure, Introducing Our Nation’s Rural-Serving Postsecondary Institutions: Moving Toward Greater Visibility and Appreciation (Boone, NC: Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, 2022), 9.

[2] For a discussion on ways that states may limit CCB authorization to a subset of colleges or subject areas, see Ivy Love and Iris Palmer, Community College Baccalaureate Programs: A State Policy Framework (Washington, DC: New America, 2020).

[3] The RSI metric assigns a value between 0–4, with higher values for rural-serving colleges. As used in the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges’ report presenting the RSI metric, we employ an RSI value of 1.175 or higher to indicate a rural-serving institution.

[4] In this brief, we use the rural-serving institution (RSI) indicator, but in this cited research from the Urban Institute, researchers used urbanization categories used in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to identify rural located community colleges. See note 1 for more information on this distinction.