Advancing colleges in Appalachia

Southwestern Community College entrance sign in Sylva, North Carolina, at the Blue Ridge Great Smoky mountains. (Photo: iStock)

Kevin Boys has had a long relationship with the Community Colleges of Appalachia (CCA), an association representing community colleges across 13 states in the Appalachian region.

When Boys became president of Ohio’s Southern State Community College (SSCC) in 2010, his predecessor encouraged him to become familiar with CCA, which is an American Association of Community Colleges affiliate council.

Boys went to a small conference – “I’m not sure there were even 13 of us in the room,” he says – and has been involved ever since. He served on CCA’s board and was chair when the executive director had to take leave. Boys helped to keep CCA moving forward, even as he was SSCC’s president.

When he retired from SSCC earlier this year, taking on the executive director role permanently appealed to him.

“At the time, I thought it might be something I could do and still contribute without the pressures of a presidency,” Boys said. He’s one of two CCA employees. It’s a part-time role, but “like all part-time jobs, it’s not as part-time as I thought.”

Concerns in the Appalachian region

Source: Appalachian Regional Commission

As executive director, Boys’ job is to help advance CCA’s work in providing programs and services responsive to the unique challenges – cultural, geographic and economic – facing the Appalachian region. Many people in the region are economically disadvantaged and many college students don’t know where their next meal is coming from, Boys says.

“Equity is at the core of CCA,” he adds.

There are ongoing concerns among CCA members about enrollment loss. There have been particularly steep enrollment losses of male and adult students.

“We’re asking, ‘Where are the adult students?’ Employers are asking the same thing,” Boys says.

Familiar challenges

Some of the enrollment loss is attributed to students taking jobs as employers boost pay and benefits to fill open positions in a competitive labor market.

“They’re fairly good-paying jobs, but they’re not a long-term career,” Boys says.

Rural colleges are also battling against headlines that question the value of a postsecondary education. Educators need to “raise up the importance of education,” Boys says, even as the number of high school graduates in the region declines.

New pre-pandemic data on Appalachia: The Appalachian Regional Commission has released its annual overview of Appalachia using U.S. Census data. It notes that the region was improving in educational attainment, labor force participation, income and reducing poverty — and then the Covid pandemic hit. Check out DataPoints to see info on associate degrees in the region.

CCA members also face revenue challenges, especially as pandemic relief funding is sunsetting. In addition, Appalachia colleges are facing staffing turnover at all levels, including among presidents. Pay and flexibility are contributing to that. Wages for public employees “aren’t rising like those in the private sector,” Boys says. And when it comes to hiring adjuncts, he adds, “pay has always been an issue, but even more so now.”

Many colleges in Appalachia also are dealing with more natural disasters. For example, Kentucky recently had severe flooding and colleges are working to help students recover from the damage it caused.

What’s next

Despite the challenges – or maybe because of the challenges – membership in CCA remains strong. Boys is leading strategic planning efforts and mapping new programs and services that members will find valuable.

“We’re member-driven,” he says. “It’s all about serving the membership.”

CCA is currently developing a Rural Educator Academy. The organization received a $475,000 Ascendium grant in 2020 to design and pilot the new academy, which expands on CCA’s ongoing professional development services. The academy will have a leadership track to help college leaders enact systemic change, and a track with programming to help faculty and staff understand the unique challenges of the students they serve.

CCA is testing the program now. It includes a virtual component, online coursework and a team project from cohorts from each involved campus.

Boys also is looking to capitalize on increased attention on rural areas from the government and philanthropy. He considers CCA to be a logical convener on rural initiatives. The association is working to build new partnerships and already has a strong partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

“We think CCA is in a good position to be a convener of organizations that share similar goals and want to see similar outcomes,” he says.

“We’re a connection to 95 communities,” Boys adds. “We’re the connection to opportunity.”

The next CCA convening is in November at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. It will focus on entrepreneurship, culture and local economies.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.