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Survey reveals a majority of Tennesseans want more access to higher education in rural areas

State funding and programs are aiming to create more rural options, but there are some hurdles in the way.

COCKE COUNTY, Tenn. — When it comes to higher education in Tennessee, most people who responded to a recent survey want more access to higher education and options to pursue college in rural parts of the state.

Western Governors University, or WGU Tennessee, commissioned its third survey on higher education. The school released the results on Monday.

In it, researchers said 78% percent of people who responded said they agree with Governor Bill Lee and think there should be more access to higher education in rural areas of Tennessee.

Along with access, a majority of respondents also think improving the affordability of college and technical training programs should be a high priority for the state.

State programs are aiming to create more rural options, but educators say there are some hurdles in the way.

Dr. Jared Bigham, the Executive Director for the Tennessee Rural Education Association, said it's up to teachers and administrators to bring awareness to why rural education is so vital.

"78% isn't surprising to me," Bingham said. "It's a little disappointing, actually, because I think the bar for any student, whether it's rural or urban or suburban, should be set much higher."

He explained that there are needs and gaps that have to be filled in rural areas too before access can be expanded, such as high-speed internet access and the availability of technology.

RELATED: Governor Bill Lee proposes high speed internet expansion to rural communities

"I think one of the few hurdles that rural communities face right now is just that geographic isolation," Bingham said.

Kimberly Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee and the regional vice president for the southeast, said the survey confirmed people want more access to higher education even during the pandemic and that closing the digital divide is more important than ever.

"There are talented people in every zip code, and we want to make sure we create a level opportunity playing field that includes people who may be in our more rural communities," Estep said.

She also added that opportunity comes in the form of a degree or certificate. They essentially open doors for students who want to pursue careers that may not have been available previously.

"We know for our state to be successful in growing economically and staying on the cutting edge of what industry needs us to do, we need an educated workforce," Estep said.

Walters State Community College opened satellite campuses in Cocke and Claiborne Counties to implant higher-education into rural areas and invest in those communities.

"It's not just to train them to go out and do something in the current industry. It's also to train them to be entrepreneurs and big thinkers, and to get out there and really grow that community," said Dr. Tony Miksa, the President of Walters State.

Miksa added Newport and Cocke County leaders were large reasons why the satellite campus was able to open there. He said they pushed for a need they saw in their community.

The digital divide is not the only hurdle WSCC is trying to overcome. Location is everything when it comes to students who commute, especially in rural areas where public transportation often is not available.

"It's that idea of reducing barriers, getting the campuses there and then also getting them interested in college, and hopefully getting them across the finish line to that associate's degree," Miksa said.

Even with accessibility, it's important to know what options are out there for scholarships, both for high schoolers and adults. Click here for a full list of college scholarship applications.


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