Rural Colleges Are The Best

Rural colleges are the best.

There. I've said it.

I realize my opinion is not shared by everyone. Earlier this year, administrators at Sweet Briar said that they needed to close their doors because of what they called a "declining student interest" in attending colleges in rural settings.

I found their argument hard to understand. I have the good fortune to work at a small liberal arts college in a beautiful rural setting in the middle of a diverse community of 30,000 people and I know that we benefit greatly from our location.

Indeed, Whitman College, along with others like Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin and other top liberal arts schools, are terrific educational institutions in large part because of our settings, removed from urban distractions, which allow us to create vibrant living and learning communities. We are proud that our students live on or very near campus and spend most of their time together in classrooms, labs, performance venues, and other shared spaces, exchanging ideas and exploring what they are learning with one another, building their understanding as a highly interactive population. Crystallizing this sentiment, we sometimes hear students saying, "there's so much to do on campus I don't feel like I need to leave!"

Yet, at the same time, and sometimes less commented on, our schools also greatly benefit from existing in municipalities where we know our neighbors. Our small towns are vibrant hubs for innovation and creative collaborations because we all need to pull together to tackle community issues. Our students and our colleges provide another critical resource and can be strong sustained partners with initiatives underway by our local businesses, organizations, governmental agencies and other entities.

These places are sites of high-impact learning and civic engagement for our students so that when they do leave their classrooms (and most do) they can immerse themselves in valuable educational and professional settings and can do so within walking distance of campus. The collaborations available to us are meaningful, numerous, accessible and also help us prepare our students for life after graduation.

As a recent example of how Whitman has been able to capitalize on our dynamic surrounding community, last week my office partnered with our local public school district and an innovative school based health clinic to offer a special screening of a new award-winning documentary called Paper Tigers, directed by James Redford. The film focuses on one of our local public high schools that is using a forward-looking approach to help their students from challenging background break the cycles of poverty, violence and health disparities that affect families so they can succeed in their education.

Immediately prior to the screening, an important local foundation, The Sherwood Trust, convened a high-level meeting of several dozen local business, non-profit, and civic leaders to talk about collective impact approaches to improving outcomes for local youth. During that meeting, a Whitman faculty member and two of her student interns presented an upcoming theater production they are developing that engages audiences to deepen their understanding of poverty and therefore create a foundation for how to address that challenging social reality just beyond our campus. After the meeting, everyone -- business leaders and students, social service directors and professors, funders and students affairs staff -- together went off to see the film.

The screening was an extraordinary success, with every single one of the 1,300 seats in Whitman's largest auditorium filled and another hundred or so people standing in the aisles. More importantly, we gained hundreds of new supporters for the trauma-informed approach to education depicted in the movie.

The partnership of these organizations was underscored by the fact that over the past few years many Whitman students have been able to do research, volunteer and intern at the Health Center and Lincoln School, contributing to the extraordinary story told in the film, with some of them doing so through support from the Sherwood Trust. Moreover, several Whitman alumni have served as AmeriCorps workers at these organizations after they graduated.

Together, the afternoon and evening demonstrated what is possible when a college has ready access to local resources and a consistent track record as a reliable partner and equal collaborator. As our students might say, it was a "mashup" of gown and town in the best possible way.

This is just one of many examples of what is possible in a rural setting. So when we hear prospective students and their families asking their campus tour guides, "is there anything to do around here?" we say to them, "hey, can we chat for a few minutes?..."