Can college sports put rural campuses on the map?


Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile markers, a bimonthly Open Campus newsletter on the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.


For more than two decades, Champlain College did not have a single varsity sports team. In early February, however, the private four-year-old college plunged back into the fray – but this time, online, with its new esports team playing in its first streaming college game of the season.

The Valorant match gave 13 student athletes and a handful of students in supporting roles a chance to show off their abilities on an intercollegiate stage. But, like traditional college sports, it had the added benefit of shining a spotlight on the college in Burlington, Vermont, a school of fewer than 5,000 students that offers six undergraduate majors in game development.

The Twitch event was the school’s biggest ever live stream, attracting 236 unique viewers at 9 p.m. on a Monday night. And virtual competition had advantages over its in-person counterparts: Champlain was able to compete with universities as distant as the University of Hawaii, a feat that would be prohibitively expensive for, say, a baseball team in a small remote school.

The two-hour stream drew viewers from across the country and around the world, including at least five prospective students considering taking part in Champlain – and, unlike an in-person sporting event, administrators were able to answer their questions in time. real via Twitch threads. .

Esports presents an intriguing outreach opportunity for increasingly cash-strapped colleges in more remote parts of the country. At least 175 institutions are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, with major esports programs at rural colleges such as Ashland University in Ohio and Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa.

Colleges can fund a program with scholarships, internships, broadcast equipment and a top-notch facility with at least six competition computers for around $120,000, says Christian Konczal, Champlain’s Esports Program Director: definitely places it on the map as a pioneering location for the next level of athletics.

This is a significantly lower investment than that required by traditional university programs. Additionally, it can be integrated with other student services that colleges may already provide, such as a high-tech media or entertainment center. Champlain has eight computers dedicated to the team and its coach, and another 16 available to all students, who can rent the team’s broadcasting equipment for free.

If these esports programs grow in popularity, they could offer the same kind of sponsorship opportunities found in other college sports programs (the global esports market was valued at just over $1 billion in 2021, an increase of 50% compared to 2020).

Growing up in northern Georgia, I remember visiting my friend in Pickens County every summer. We beg his parents to drive us to Tate Mountain to play on the latest computers and games consoles, joining dozens of other kids who, en masse, have shelled out our allowances at the shiny play center.

More news on rural higher education

What if FCC auctions funded digital literacy? Congress spends billions subsidizing broadband, but are such efforts useless if students and their parents aren’t equipped with the knowledge they need to use technology properly? It’s an interesting question, one that the Rural Assembly asks while offering a new solution – funneling some of the more than $100 billion the FCC raises by auctioning spectrum licenses to fund apps, devices and digital literacy training. A recent webinar on the subject took a closer look.

A college in Arkadelphia turns to the requirement. Henderson State University, a small public college in rural Arkansas, has taken the unusual step of declaring a financial requirement as it faces a projected shortfall of more than $12 million and enrollment numbers that have fell 7.7% last fall from a year earlier. The statement allows the college to potentially fire tenured professors, but professors generally support the decision, writes former Missouri State University president Michael T. Nietzel for Forbes — calling Henderson State a test of whether the requirement can be effective when all parties work together.

Address the shortage of Aboriginal nurses. Two Colorado colleges are teaming up to offer a “new four-year culturally competent nursing degree” at Fort Lewis College in Durango, which offers free tuition to tribal members. Nursing is scarce, especially in tribal lands, and housing the program at the former federal Indian residential school could dramatically expand access, writes Elizabeth Hernandez for The Denver Post.

Had a college hosted this gaming center, it would have become a natural recruitment engine for local residents pursuing higher education. This is especially useful for remote colleges trying to reach rural students, who are still the most likely to graduate from high school but the least likely to attend college.

Putting research into practice

While writing this story, I struggled to decide if I could really call Champlain College “rural”. I’ve been to Burlington, VT (population 45,000) and it feels decidedly urban to me, from the city layout and walkability to other factors. However, big city transplants can definitely feel differently. “I’m from Detroit: it’s pretty rural,” Konczal told me.

In the past, I probably should have shrugged my shoulders and moved on. But a number of organizations have recently published innovative methods for measuring higher education in rural areas, which gave me the perfect opportunity to test the new rural compass I mentioned earlier.

Using the RSI Data Tool provided by the Regional College Research Alliance, I was able to see that Champlain College has an RSI score of 1.631. This actually meets the ARRC’s criteria for an RSI as it is above the national average score of 1.175.

While Champlain’s home county of Chittenden is only about 26% rural, its score is determined by the fact that its surrounding counties are 71% rural, suggesting that it is in a urban center serving a largely rural area.

Rural employment, grant opportunities

Recruitment: Rural recruitment officers. Washington University in St. Louis is hiring for two director-level admissions positions focused on reaching rural students in parts of Missouri and Illinois — another sign that schools are increasingly visiting more realizes that rural students are a unique demographic with specific outreach needs.

Apply: National Digital Browser Grants. This month, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance received a $10 million grant from Google to put digital navigators – guides intended to help people in rural communities adopt the internet – in 18 established community organizations that serve communities. rural and tribal. Proposals are due in April.

Learn: Higher Education in Rural India. The Fair Chance Foundation is funding a five-year, half-million-pound University of Warwick project that seeks to transform India’s rural institutions into ‘centres of academic knowledge’ that can help students overcome social and gender barriers to enrollment in higher education.

This score is also impacted by being designated 3 out of 6 on the rural-urban continuum code used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a reflection of the differences in the urban nature of Burlington compared to cities like Detroit or New York.

Whether Champlain is rural or not, the existence of such measures allows fascinating new conversations to emerge. Now we can begin to analyze exactly what we mean by rurality and what aspects of it we are trying to address with policy discussions.


This article first appeared in Mile markers, a bimonthly Open Campus newsletter on the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to receive future editions in your inbox.

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