When Iowa Wesleyan University announced in March that it would close, its biggest creditor was a federal government agency that had loaned it $26 million and then — in an attempt to help the university survive —softened the terms and extended the repayment period.

It wasn’t the Department of Education that made the loan, or the Treasury or Interior departments, or any of the many government departments that support academic research.

It was the Department of Agriculture.

The USDA has been loaning tens of millions of dollars to rural colleges and universities, some of which couldn’t get financing from conventional lenders or whose budgets are so precarious that the Education Department has placed them under additional financial scrutiny.

This support, through a program set up to promote rural economic development and from the federal agency that works the most with rural places, underscores how important local universities and colleges are to those communities — and the vulnerability of a growing number of them.

“Beyond the educational prospects, these institutions support small businesses who depend on the student and faculty population, and they make their communities a more attractive place to live,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa who started his political career as mayor of Mount Pleasant, the city that’s home to Iowa Wesleyan, and whose wife was on its board of trustees.

“They generate opportunity,” Vilsack said. “When an area loses one of these colleges, like we are seeing in Mount Pleasant right now, it is a very emotional loss.”

The decline of rural higher education is also widening one of America’s biggest equity challenges. Many private colleges the USDA is propping up are in what would otherwise be higher education “deserts.” Already, 13 million Americans live in places, mostly in the Midwest and Great Plains, where the nearest university is beyond a reasonable commute away, the American Council on Education reports.

Read the full article about rural colleges by Jon Marcus at The Hechinger Report.