At rural colleges, workforce development on a budget

Spoon River College in Illinois runs a railroad sciences program in partnership with Burlington North Santa Fe. (Photo: SRC)

It has nothing to do with Monty Python, but the Flying Circus drone-race events during the past three years in Covington, Virginia, are one of many reasons and indications that rural community colleges and their students are looking toward the bright side of life.

Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in nearby Clifton Forge, a co-host of the drone racing event, has partnered with the city, a local economic development corporation and several local businesses to create a short-term certificate program for unmanned systems technicians, who learn to repair and maintain drones.

This has led a Florida company to add a site nearby, in what’s now called the Allegheny Highlands Drone Zone incubator, that will eventually hire 25 Lancaster-trained technicians, who will make at least $50,000 per year, says John Rainone, president of the college, which serves an 1,800-square-mile region with a population of only 70,000.

“The goal was to diversify the economy into other areas,” Rainone says, noting the program has about a half dozen partners. “In a small area, none of us has the resources to do it alone.”

Because traditional financial aid can’t pay for short-term certificate programs, Lancaster worked with the college’s educational foundation to provide scholarships.

The drone program is one of several at Lancaster, and one of many at rural community colleges across the nation, which address workforce development needs in geographic areas that may have lost key industries over the decades. Many are leveraging creative financial assistance to ensure that students of limited means can earn certificates or degrees.

Apprenticeships and more

In addition to the drone program, Lancaster hopes to expand its apprenticeship training in fields such as welding and advanced manufacturing after receiving one of 80 grants for that purpose from a partnership between the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the U.S. Department of Labor. The college has forged about 30 to 40 apprenticeships per year with local businesses like a nearby paper mill, and Rainone says the college has a goal of 150 apprentices over the next three years, who will enjoy tuition reimbursement from the grant money.

“This is a great way to come back around and help employers. Just like in every part of the country, they’re desperate for help,” he says. “It’s worked beautifully for 25 years with our largest employer in this area, so I don’t see why it can’t work for other, smaller companies.”

Lancaster also participates in a state program called FastForward through which participants can gain high-demand industry credentials in a matter of weeks. The most popular such program at Lancaster leads to a CDL truck license, a course of study that costs $2,400 and can be completed in less than 60 days, leading to a wage of between $32 and $35 per hour, Rainone says. Under the program, the student needs to pay only $800 at the outset, and based on a needs assessment, the state can reduce that to as little as $80, he says.

“The financial aid is there for the low-income people, we get the middle-class back to work, and we have plenty of job openings,” Rainone says. “We just don’t have the bodies to fill them. We have companies calling us once a week, asking, ‘Do you have any graduates for CDL? Or nursing assistants?’”

The Brunswick Guarantee

Brunswick Community College in Brunswick County, North Carolina, has supported students in workforce development programs thanks to the Brunswick Guarantee, a last-dollar scholarship program passed by county commissioners to benefit high school graduates from the county. Starting with 50 students and now at 100, it provides up to $750 per semester for tuition, fees and books, says Brunswick President Gene Smith.

To further help students financially, Brunswick also has leveraged the state College and Career Promise program, which allows junior and senior high school students to do dual enrollment tuition-free on college campuses. And Brunswick has an early-college high school right on its campus, so students can complete their associate degree early — sometimes while they’re still in high school, says Greg Bland, vice president for economic workforce development and continuing education.

“It’s a dream come true for a high school student coming from a family without a college graduate to guide them,” he says. “What a wide-open door. It keeps our young people, our talent, here a little while longer. They’re much more likely to succeed on a university campus if they experience this, and mature a little bit.”

The fastest-growing workforce development field in Brunswick County is the building trades, given its coastal location between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Bland says. The college received a $400,000 Pathways to Purpose grant in April 2019, after Hurricane Florence had devastated the area several months earlier, to help build out these programs, which pays for students’ registration fees, credentials testing, books, transportation and childcare.

“It’s quick training, with credentials that are recognized,” Bland says. “Students have work-based learning experiences before the class ends. It’s a way to introduced them to the world of work before they finish the course.”

Brunswick is excited to open a new health sciences building that, in particular, will serve the growing retirement community in the region, Smith says. The state-of-the-art facility will consolidate all health sciences programs under one roof.

“As we partner with local hospitals in our region, we’re better able to serve students as they’re becoming nurses,” he says. “And we have the opportunity for nurses already in the workplace to receive additional training in our laboratory.”

Another healthcare-related initiative has stemmed from a $200,000 grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina to train paramedics. The program has incorporated Microsoft virtual reality headgear to create a simulation on what it’s like to encounter a person who’s in the middle of an opioid overdose, Smith says. Then students are trained on how to respond.

“It’s as real as you can get,” he says. “You’ve got 60 seconds — is that a snake bite, or is it an overdose? You’ve got to determine that based on what you’ve learned.”

Deep tuition discounts at Edison State

Students at Edison State Community College in Piqua, Ohio, who took at least 45 credit hours while dually enrolled in high school and then matriculated to the campus immediately after graduating high school get free tuition toward either an associate degree or 70 credit hours total. Those who took between nine and 44 credit hours get 50 percent off tuition until they meet one of those thresholds, says Chad Beanblossom, vice president of regional campuses, who notes these are last-dollar scholarships that only apply if students stay continuously enrolled.

Not all students need the free tuition, however, even if they obtain an associate degree, Beanblossom says. That’s because about half of Edison State’s population at any one time has taken dual-enrollment courses either at the college, online or at their respective high school campuses. And some of those students end up completing an associate degree while still in high school. In fact, nearly 40 did last year.

“In the past, something we struggled with is getting those dual-enrolled students to not only take a couple of courses with us in high school, but getting them to complete with us once they graduate high school,” Beanblossom says. “What we’ve been focusing on, and where the scholarship comes into play, is convincing students to stick around for an associate of arts to then transfer on to a four-year institution, or to complete a technical degree program and have the knowledge to go right into the workforce.”

In Edison State’s service area north of Dayton, Ohio, manufacturing and agriculture are by far the two largest industries, Beanblossom says. The college has seen increases in manufacturing engineering students and for the past two years in its agriculture programs. In fall 2019, Edison State launched a veterinary technician program for the first time, it recently began an aviation-related program, and it revived a dormant medical assistant program while opening a new campus in Troy, Ohio, centered around healthcare.

“We have several larger hospitals in the Dayton region,” he says. With programs ranging from phlebotomy to physical therapy assisting, “We’re trying to respond to the workforce needs with that particular campus.”

From railroad sciences to pharmacy tech

Spoon River College in Canton, Illinois, has launched a railroad sciences program modeled after one at Johnson County Community College in Kansas, in partnership with Burlington North Santa Fe. Johnson County approached Spoon River six years ago about expanding its diesel program to include locomotive repair partly because Burlington Northern has a switchyard in nearby Galesburg, where students can go for field experience, says Curt Oldfield, president of Spoon River.

After Spoon River faculty learned the material and wrote their curriculum, the first cohort of nine students at Spoon River began in January 2019. A short-term program that continued through the end of an internship in July, students who complete the program — which will bring in another group this month — receive certification from the Federal Railroad Administration.

“They were able to move into the workforce as soon as they completed their internship,” Oldfield says.

The program does not have any financial incentives yet, but Spoon River is in conversations with railroad partners and foundations about contributing scholarship funds. The college’s foundation has money set aside for short-term programs, although nothing specifically earmarked for the railroad science course of study, Oldfield says.

Another key workforce development program for Spoon River has been pharmacy tech, which has filled a major need in the area, he says. The 10- to 12-week program is designed to help students pass the state exam to gain a license. It does not have dedicated funding for scholarships at this point, aside from federal workforce money for dislocated workers, so the college does all it can to keep costs down, Oldfield says.

“We will see students who have a CNA degree with us, who can pick up hours at a Walgreen’s,” he says. “They put a couple of certifications together to keep their household income improving. That has been our ultimate goal, to help particularly non-traditional students who have been out in the workforce. … It’s a great way for us to help build their confidence. Walgreen’s, CVS and some local rural hospitals have hired them for their own pharmacy.”

The layoffs of about 300 workers from two coal-fired power plants just outside Peoria in the latter part of 2019 led to growth in the number of workers looking for other types of training. Many have enrolled in CDL classes, using displaced worker funding, Oldfield says.

“We’re trying to work closely with our local workforce investment boards to make sure those opportunities are available,” he says. “It’s a nice way to get a quick turnaround for those individuals who are displaced to get close to the income level they were making when the power plants were operating.”

From linemen to radiologists

Through a partnership with local utility companies, Somerset Community College (SCC) in Somerset, Kentucky, has enabled more than 1,000 students over the past 11 years to work as electrical linemen thanks to its Lineman Training Center.

In a hardscrabble area that’s suffered coal industry losses, the center’s program — with co-sponsorship from the Southeast Kentucky Rural Electrical Cooperative, Pulaski County and the college — is in the process of converting to a credit-bearing course track, says SCC President Carey Castle.

For now, though, participants are not eligible for federal financial aid, so Somerset has steered students toward a state-backed program called the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship, along with other sources of funds, Castle says. The Work Ready program provides “last-chance funding” for state residents who have high school diplomas or GEDs so they can graduate without debt. “By golly, it has worked well,” he says.

On another workforce development front, Somerset has worked with a group called Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) to build up its healthcare offerings, recently forging a partnership with Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital to train cohorts of nurses, some of them incumbent workers. That will start this spring, Castle says.

“They are consistently in need of that,” he says. “We also work with the surrounding counties in terms of building our clinical [workforce], sponsoring students when it makes sense for them, and in general trying to stay in tune with what they want — radiology, respiratory therapy, medical lab, certainly nurse’s aides — any of those things.”

In addition, SCC has joined a consortium of colleges that includes five four-year universities in creating the University Center of Southern Kentucky, which provides local articulation possibilities for students in an area that doesn’t have a large public university campus.

“Students don’t want to leave home when they’re in school,” Castle says. “It helps the community if we can slow down that migration out. … You still take those classes here. You never actually leave the Somerset campus.” And articulations are firmly in place.

Finally, Somerset has participated in the statewide Kentucky FAME (Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education) program, a company-sponsored initiative. Students in this program split time between the classroom and the shop floor, earning a two-year degree in robotics or other advanced manufacturing, Castle says.

“There’s been a very big push for the state, and KCTCS (Kentucky Community and Technical College System), in general, to support workforce development in Kentucky,” he says. “That’s what we do. That’s our job. We look at it as a major piece of our mission.”

Students at Somerset Community College and other two-year colleges in the state can earn an associate degree in robotics or other advanced manufacturing programs through the Kentucky FAME program. (Photo: SCC)

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.