photo of students competing in a computer game
Champlain College's Esports program fields teams who compete across nine different games while also supporting the school's game development curriculum (Image Credit: The Game Studio at Champlain College).

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about 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 didn’t have a single varsity sports team. In early February, though, the four-year private university threw itself back in the fray — only this time, online, with its newly minted esports team playing in its first streamed varsity match of the season.

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

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

The two-hour stream attracted viewers from across the country and world, including at least five prospective students considering attending Champlain — and, unlike at an in-person sporting event, administrators were able to answer their questions in real-time through Twitch’s chat feeds.

Esports represent 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 significant 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, broadcasting equipment, and a top-tier facility with at least six competition computers for around $120,000, says Christian Konczal, director of Champlain’s Esports program: “It definitely puts us on the map as a place pioneering the next level of athletics.”

That’s a significantly smaller investment than traditional varsity programs require. Plus, it can be wrapped into other services for students that colleges may already plan for, such as a high-tech media or rec center. Champlain has eight computers dedicated to the team and its coach, and another 16 available to the broader student body, who can rent the team’s broadcasting equipment for free.

If these esports programs gain in popularity, they could provide the same type of sponsorship opportunities seen in other varsity sports programs (the global esports market was valued at just over $1 billion in 2021, a 50% increase from 2020).

Growing up in north Georgia, I remember visiting my friend in Pickens County each summer. We would beg his parents to drive us down Tate Mountain to play the newest computers and gaming consoles, joining dozens of other kids who, in droves, shelled out our allowances at the shiny gaming center.

More Rural Higher Ed News

What If FCC Auctions Funded Digital Literacy? Congress is dedicating billions to subsidizing broadband, but are such efforts moot if students and their parents aren’t equipped with the knowledge they need to properly use technology? It’s an interesting question, one the Rural Assembly poses while proposing a novel solution — channeling some of the more than $100 billion the FCC raises by auctioning spectrum licenses into funding digital literacy apps, devices, and training. A recent webinar on the topic took a closer look.

An Arkadelphia College Turns to Exigency. Henderson State University, a small public college in rural Arkansas, has taken the unusual step of declaring financial exigency as it faces a projected shortfall of more than $12 million and enrollment figures that dropped 7.7% last fall from the previous year. The declaration allows the college to potentially terminate tenured faculty, yet faculty are generally supportive of the decision, writes former Missouri State University president Michael T. Nietzel for Forbes — calling Henderson State a test case for whether exigency can be effective when all parties are collaborating.

Tackling the Indigenous Nursing Shortage. Two Colorado higher education institutions are partnering to provide a “novel, culturally-competent four-year nursing degree” at Durango’s Fort Lewis College, which offers free tuition to tribal members. Nursing is scarce, particularly in tribal lands, and housing the program at the former federal Indian boarding school could significantly expand access, writes Elizabeth Hernandez for The Denver Post.

If a college had hosted that gaming center, it would have become a natural recruiting engine for local residents pursuing higher education. That’s especially valuable for remote colleges trying to reach rural students, who still are the most likely to graduate high school yet the least likely to attend college.

Putting Research into Practice

When putting together this story, I struggled to decide whether I could truly call Champlain College “rural.” I’ve been to Burlington, Vermont (population 45,000) and it feels decidedly urban to me, from its city layout and walkability to other factors. However, bigger city transplants may certainly feel differently. “I’m from Detroit: It feels pretty rural,” Konczal told me.

In the past, I likely would have had to shrug and move on. But a number of organizations have recently released innovative ways to measure rural higher education — which gave me the perfect chance to test the new rural compass I've previously written about.

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

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

Rural Job, Grant Opportunities

Hiring: 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 realizing that rural students are a unique demographic with specific outreach needs.

Apply: National Digital Navigator Grants. This month, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance received a $10M grant from Google to put digital navigators — guides meant to help rural community members with internet adoption — in 18 established community organizations that serve rural and Tribal communities. Proposals are due in April.

Learn: Higher Ed Study in Rural India. The Fair Chance Foundation is funding a five-year, half-million pound project by the University of Warwick researching how to turn India’s rural institutions into “college knowledge hubs” that can help students overcome social and gender barriers to enrolling in higher ed.

That score is also impacted by it being designated a 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 with cities like Detroit or New York.

Regardless of whether Champlain is rural or not, the existence of such metrics allows for fascinating new conversations to emerge. Now, we can start parsing exactly what we mean by rurality, and which aspects of it we are trying to address with policy discussions.

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.