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ED, USDA partner to better serve rural areas

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(From left) USDA Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager talks with AACC President Walter Bumphus and Michael Chipps, president of Northeast Community College in Nebraska, prior to USDA and AACC signing an agreement this month.

​The U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Agriculture (USDA) are partnering to enhance agricultural education and related programs that promote postsecondary and career pathways, including teaching.

Arne Duncan and Tom Vilsack, the secretaries of  ED and USDA, announced the agreement on Wednesday during a White House Rural Council meeting with local educators at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. (On Thursday, the secretaries are scheduled to hold another rural council meeting at Hawkeye Community College in Iowa.)

“Many Americans may not realize that agriculture supports 1 in 12 jobs across the nation,” Duncan said. “For the U.S. economy to continue to rebound and grow, agriculture has to help lead the way.”

Vilsack echoed those comments, noting that agriculture makes significant contributions to the U.S. economy, which is why it’s important to recruit the best and brightest of the next generation to pursue careers in agriculture.

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“USDA works each day to help educate, train and support the scientists, farmers and ranchers we’ll need to provide America’s families with the food and energy they need,” he said. “This partnership with the Department of Education will help us offer even greater opportunities for young people who want to dedicate their lives to agriculture, food and natural resources.”

The agreement calls for the agencies to exchange a variety of information and participate in joint activities, including webinars, conferences and helping to identify industry-validated standards, assessments, best practices, accreditations and certifications. The departments also will work to find and use pathways and career programs of study that can prepare students for careers related to agriculture.

Working with AACC

The agreement is the latest in the Obama administration’s effort to better serve rural areas. Earlier this month, USDA signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to leverage expertise and resources to help rural community colleges, especially in workforce development. (The Rural Community College Alliance has also signed the agreement.) The MOU calls for AACC and USDA to:

  • Establish working groups to coordinate USDA’s financial and technical resources with private sources to better serve educational institutions.
  • Develop outreach and technical assistance models for rural educational institutions.
  • Co-sponsor events such as conferences, seminars, webinars and other networking events.
  • Hold joint events to identify and remove potential barriers to resources or services.

The partnership is especially important as community colleges struggle with tight budgets and burgeoning enrollments, said Michael Chipps, president of Northeast Community College (NCC) in Nebraska and a member of the AACC board of directors​. One area the two organizations can work closer on is using technology to increase access to postsecondary education in rural areas.

Chipps noted that about a decade ago his college received a USDA grant that allowed it to strengthen its technology infrastructure to deliver distance education to communities throughout NCC’s 14,250-square-mile service area. 

“Infrastructure and technology are necessary to provide services to massive, geographically challenged areas of the country,” Chipps said.

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