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When it comes to stretching funds and leveraging partnerships, rural community colleges such as New River Community and Technical College (NRCTC) in West Virginia offer some of the best examples of maximizing resources to train local residents for available jobs.
In 2010, NRCTC expanded it welding program to meet local demands. Using a $220,000 state grant, it rented and refurbished a building to house the program, hired a full-time instructor and purchased new equipment. When the new facility opened, the welding program served 15 students. Today, 90 people are enrolled.
NRCTC also purchased a 93,000-square-foot facility—which was previously used to manufacture modular homes—using federal Recovery Act funding to house an Advanced Technology Center that trains workers for high-demand, high-paying jobs in utility line service, mining and energy, manufacturing, and transportation and distribution. The college partnered with local companies, which provided much of the equipment and instructors.
“Everything rural community colleges do is done on a shoestring,” said NRCTC President Ted Spring.
But there’s a limit to resourcefulness. NRCTC wants to add an automotive program and expand its nursing program, but developing such programs is expensive, and the state has frozen funding for community colleges over the past three years. In addition, enrollment has increased, further stretching resources. At NRCTC, enrollment of credit students has jumped from 2,000 to 4,500 since 2005.
“We cannot continue to respond to the needs of our area with such limited resources. We need help,” Spring said.
Help from the feds
Spring and other community college leaders brought that message to Washington, D.C., this month as part of the Rural Community College Alliance (RCCA), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). The group met with officials from the White House and Departments of Agriculture (USDA),Education, and Health and Human Services to convey the unique challenges rural two-year colleges face, as well as to highlight their importance to local economic development.
On the top of the list was funding for community colleges, especially as states continue to trim their financial support and shift the burden to local governments, which don’t have the tax base to make up for state cuts, said RCCA President Randy Smith. In addition, enrollments have significantly increased over the past few years, further stretching college budgets.
Community colleges in rural areas also need funds to repair or rebuild infrastructure, Smith said, noting many two-year colleges were built in the 1960s and ‘70s.
There are some grants available for which community colleges can apply to fund various projects, from infrastructure to academics and training, but rural colleges are often at a disadvantage because they don’t have the expertise to apply for grants, Smith said. While some suburban and urban colleges have teams of grant writers, many rural colleges often must pool resources to hire a grant writer or, more likely, an administrator or dean may take on writing the grant proposal.
“Our administrators will wear two, three and even four hats at their campuses,” Smith said.
Demographics and development
Federal officials are aware of the needs of rural communities. A new White House Rural Council report notes that rural areas have myriad industries that include manufacturing, agriculture, services and trade. The agriculture industry alone supports 1.8 million jobs and represents 5 percent of U.S. exports. Small businesses are also key to rural areas, which are an ideal place for many renewable energy companies to locate.
Federal officials have also zeroed in on rural areas because of the growing number of returning military veterans who live there. Although rural residents comprise 17 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of military personnel come from rural areas, according to the White House. About 1.6 million military veterans live in rural communities.
Ensuring that these veterans have access to education, training and jobs is a focus for federal officials, who note the importance of community colleges in providing these services at a reasonable cost.
During their meeting this month with RCCA members, USDA officials emphasized the department’s efforts to create and expand jobs in rural communities through modernizing utilities and infrastructure, upgrading schools, building hospitals and assisted living facilities, and improving broadband.
USDA officials also highlighted department-funded programs through which rural colleges may be eligible to receive grants. The Community Facilities Program can provide colleges with loans and grants to construct and renovate classrooms and dorms and to buy transportation vehicles. Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants can cover the cost of video-conferencing and distance-learning equipment. The Community Connect program provides grants to build broadband infrastructure and establish community centers that offer free public access in rural areas.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced a $15-million multi-agency challenge to spur job creation and economic growth in distressed rural communities. The Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge is expected to award about 20 grants. Higher education institutions and other nonprofits can partner to apply for funding.
“These are all building blocks needed to grow businesses, add housing, attract employers and develop a skilled workforce,” USDA’s Rural Development office noted in its 2011 progress report.
Dire need for skilled workers
USDA officials conveyed to community college leaders what they see as needed for a rural workforce. For example, there is a growing need for large animal veterinarians and vet technicians and assistants.
“We’re in a crisis,” said Cheryl Cook, USDA deputy under secretary for rural development. “We graduate a lot of vets, but they all want to help puppies and kittens.”
Businesses in rural communities are also having difficulty finding workers for agriculture sciences jobs related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), such as biotechnology majors who research environmental and genetic problems with crops.
“They are not finding the people with the right technical skills for the jobs,” said Catherine Woteki, the department’s chief scientist and under secretary for research, education and economics.
Marketing those available high-skill jobs, providing the training and then connecting with employers is part of the goal of a memorandum of understanding signed this month between USDA, RCCA and soon AACC.
“Partnerships such as these will help us get students interested in science, technology and math, which we’ll need for the next generation to take their place in food and agriculture science,” Woteki said.
Through the agreement, the organizations will:
RCCA’s Smith said the agreement is encouraging because it offers support and sheds the spotlight on the needs and contributions of rural colleges.
“That’s a really good step in the right direction,” he said.
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