Feb. 5, 2024
Rural community colleges play an important but underrecognized role in expanding access to quality education and workforce training in regions that need them the most. They advance equity, often serve as the largest employer in a rural county, and support economic development. Unfortunately, they also suffer from underinvestment and a lack of resources compared to colleges in urban regions.
According to a recent Ascendium Education Philanthropy-sponsored report from the Aspen Institute, forty-six out of 332 million Americans live in rural communities, and more than 1.5 million attend one of 444 rural community colleges. Rural communities are also increasingly diverse. The number of Hispanic students is growing fast, and in many rural communities, in-migration by people of color is driving overall population growth. More than thirty percent of students at rural-serving community colleges are people of color.
Since rural colleges are located in more sparse counties, they face lower local funding levels due to a smaller local tax base. Because of this, rural colleges often struggle to recruit and retain professional staff and instructors. With a limited staff comes the limited capacity to fundraise from philanthropic, state and federal, corporate, and even alumni sources.
It’s imperative that rural community colleges can raise the funds needed to fulfill their mission, especially in this particular moment of substantial federal investment.
America has made a once-in-generation-scale investment in American infrastructure and long-term economic strategy through the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act. These bills are funneling billions into communities all across the nation, including for workforce development that presents a unique opportunity for rural community colleges to win federal funds and overcome their limitations to support student success.
To shed insight on how rural community colleges can be successful in their federal fundraising efforts, I interviewed John Rainone, President of Mountain Gateway Community College, located in Clifton Forge, Virginia.
Under Rainone’s tenure of more than ten years, Mountain Gateway has won millions in grants from federal agencies like the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership serving all of West Virginia and parts of twelve other states in Appalachia.
As board president for the Rural Community College Alliance, a membership association focused on advancing the needs of 110+ rural community colleges, Rainone has advised and supported the professional development of many rural community college presidents on grant development and federal fundraising strategy.
Tips for Rural Community College Fundraising
Trustees should prioritize hiring presidents with fundraising experience, including for federal grants.
For trustees of rural colleges, hiring presidents with fundraising experience, including grant writing, should be an especially high priority. Comprehensive fundraising experience is often not part of the typical pathway to community college leadership. The most common path to becoming a community college president is through the academic ranks.
Community college faculty typically rise to department chair, then dean, vice president or provost–and finally president. Others may rise through student affairs or other academic ranks. Unlike at 4-year institutions, most faculty are focused on instruction versus research, which is typically funded by federal grants. Many community colleges don’t have an institution-wide fundraising culture, especially for smaller, rural colleges where staff have multiple job duties.
Unlike most community college presidents, Rainone came from a fundraising and resource development background, having served as a Dean for Institutional Advancement as well as Executive Director of a community college foundation. “It’s not a usual path to the presidency,” Rainone told me.
Rainone said that his background as a college fundraiser taught him the ropes of comprehensive fundraising, which included organizing golf tournaments, capital campaigns, planned giving, an annual fund-but especially grant writing. “Most colleges will have a foundation to raise private dollars through these traditional avenues, but a piece that people forget is grant writing,” he shared. Rainone also felt his background as a funder enabled him to activate his own board in fundraising efforts similar to how many 4-year universities operate.
Create a centralized process for approving grant applications
At Mountain Gateway, Rainone often writes grants for the college himself, and staff who wish to submit a grant proposal must have their proposals approved by the president’s office.
Mountain Gateway has a centralized form in which college faculty and staff submit a grant summary. The president, the college's VP for Finance, and either the VP for Academic Affairs or the Chief Workforce Officer all review and approve the grant application, depending on whether the proposal comes from academic affairs or workforce development. That level of coordination is important for resource-strapped rural colleges. “At a small or rural college, if someone is out sick for a week, we have no backups. Presidents need to look at the ROI because the paperwork for federal grants is very high,“ Rainone cautions.
This approach may seem like it would bottleneck fundraising, but Rainone believes rural community colleges, with their limited staff and grants management experience, need executive guidance and oversight to maximize the odds of a successful application and ensure the grant is worth the administrative and management costs.
Hire a Part-time or Full-time Grant Writer to Build the college’s capacity and give them the access they need.
Getting started with a part-time grant writer can be a good first step for rural colleges to access federal grants. “Many colleges who don’t do federal grants don’t have a grant writer,” Rainone said.
Rainone advises presidents to consider hiring a part-time grant writer at first who is able to establish a track record of federal fundraising at college, register the college in federal grant submission systems, and establish some standard operating procedures for how the college should identify needs, find grants, write grants, and successful manage grant reporting, which can be burdensome for federal opportunities.
“A good grant writer should be like an investigative reporter or a detective who can listen to what's happening on campus in various meetings, follow-up with staff who voice needs, and align those needs with federal grant opportunities.” Grant writers should have a seat at the executive table. Rainone, who has been on both sides of the table, recognizes the importance of grant writers having detailed insight into the needs of the college's leaders–especially at smaller, rural institutions.
Rainone advises presidents who decide to hire full-time grant writers to set a goal for them to raise their own salary and benefits within the first year of employment. In three years, they should raise five to seven times their salary.
Network with your Local USDA and EDA Representative.
Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a big source of rural development funding, Rainone recommends rural colleges network with their local USDA representative. Mountain Gateway invites their USDA representatives to participate in events on campus so they can get a first-hand perspective on the impact of the college and their needs. Rainone made it a point to formally meet with their USDA representative at least three times a year himself. Colleges should also network with their state or regional office of the U.S. Economic Development Administration and their state’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership center, which can be a partner of manufacturing-oriented grants through the U.S. National Institutes of Standards and Technology.
Join communities of practice to identify collaborators and best practices.
Rainone encourages rural community college leaders to get involved with regional, state associations, or national organizations of colleges, such as the Rural Community College Alliance, which partners with the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), a Washington, DC-based national association of college trustees and presidents, to host a “rural day” at the ACCT National Legislative Summit. During the Summit, ACCT’s governmental affairs staff provide training on engaging legislators, including for funding requests, and allow colleges to meet with leaders from federal funders of rural needs such as from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Commerce, and the Appalachia Regional Commission.
Other regional organizations, such as Community Colleges of Appalachia, offer communities of practice that can be good places to identify best practices or collaborators for joint grant applications uniquely focused on rural colleges.
While various national associations support professional development for fundraisers at non-profits or universities, no national organization specific to community college fundraising exists. However, Rainone and other rural college presidents who used to be involved with the now-defunct Council for Resource Development, which used to be a professional organization focused on fundraising for two-year colleges, are actively working to revive the entity in the near future.
(New America provides resources for rural community colleges through technical assistance projects, research and storytelling, and communities of practice. Interested colleges should subscribe to our newsletter).
By incorporating these tips, rural community colleges can take advantage of this moment of federal investment and build their institution’s capacity to meet student and employer needs in regions that need them the most.