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DU Professor Leads Alliance Studying Impact of Regional Colleges

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Nika Anschuetz





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outside exterior picture of Morgridge College of Education

Established in 2020, the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC) was launched to study the impact of regional colleges. But for Cecilia Orphan, ARRC co-director and assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, the groundwork started 15 years ago in Oregon, when she became the first member of her family to earn a college degree.

An alumna of Portland State University, a regional college, and the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, Orphan’s passionate commitment to the former grows, in part, out of experiences at the latter. While studying higher education in Pennsylvania, Orphan noticed an educational disconnect. She rarely heard about regional colleges in her classes, and when she did, what she heard didn’t match her professional or personal experience.

“Frankly, it kind of [irritated me],” she says of the paltry attention paid to regional colleges. “I was like, ‘You know what? I am going to show you all.’ We need research about them that is empirical. Not in a way that I want to bias the research. I just want to tell these stories,” she says.

According to Orphan, around 40% of college students are enrolled in a regional college. But the amount of research on these colleges and their impact falls far short of what Orphan thinks it should be.

 “I think a lot of it has to do with the nature of prestige and what we think of in society of being a ‘good college,’” she says. “We do this really unique thing where we equate educational quality with being exclusionary.”

Exclusivity, she maintains, is antithetical to education.

“You would think we would assess quality in terms of those institutions that will take anyone with various preparation levels and be able to educate them and bring them up to the same level,” Orphan says.

ARRC’s first project, published in January, focused on how important rural institutions are to their communities and how COVID-19 threatens their contributions.

Shortly after publishing the project, the research collaborative received a $428,000 grant from Ascendium Education Group to define what it means to be a rural-serving institution. The goal is to further research on rural colleges and one day have the group’s definition used by the federal government to create special grants.

“What makes these schools different [from] universities that are serving urban communities or suburban communities? Do they offer different types of degrees? Do they enroll different types of students? Do they spend their money differently than other institutions? How do they serve rural communities?” Orphan asks.

Regional and rural colleges often provide a solid foundation for economic growth and advancement to their respective communities. Part of Orphan’s research focuses on highlighting and quantifying their community impact.

Impact, Orphan explains, is not just related to enrollment size. It’s also measured in reach and accessibility.

“If you’re seeing predominantly in-state enrollments, most of the students are probably from 100 miles or closer,” she says. “They [regional colleges] have faculty serving on the school board or on boards of nonprofits. They are supporting government officials to support different things in the region.”

Unfortunately, Orphan says, the Great Recession kicked off a nationwide trend: public divestment in higher education. Since then, the price of college has soared. Orphan sees a direct correlation, noting that when states cut a dollar, institutions raise tuition a dollar. Students are now paying more for public higher education than the state or federal government.

“Is this [still] a public institution if the public is investing less than private citizens are by way of tuition?” Orphan asks.

Despite their funding challenges, the ARRC sees regional and rural colleges as resilient and, perhaps, best equipped to fight racial injustice and inequality.

Through the ARRC, Orphan hopes to disrupt the conversation and myths surrounding higher education and regional colleges. In 2006, she walked across the stage as the first member of her family to graduate from college. And in 2021, as an homage to her beginnings, Orphan advocates for the institutions that gave her a chance to thrive.

“There are a lot of college students [who] need a lot of different types of institutions, and we should really value the diversity of institutions we have,” Orphan says. “It’s a real strength of the American system. It sets us apart. Instead of spending all our time thinking about and obsessing over this small group of exclusionary schools, let’s expand our view. Let’s see all higher education and all it has to offer.”