Preparing rural regions for a digital economy

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Achieving the Dream (ATD) is launching a new initiative to help rural community colleges better prepare students for careers in the digital economy.

As it kicks off its annual convening this week (held virtually), ATD on Tuesday announced the first seven colleges that will participate in its Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work initiative. It will help colleges prepare students with the general skills they will need for a digital workforce as well as specific skills for available jobs.

The pandemic has raised awareness of the challenges rural communities face in accessing the digital world, said ATD President and CEO Karen Stout. But communities also are aware of the potential of using broadband to open new economic and career opportunities, she said. The new initiative aims to help rural colleges prepare students for those workforce needs.

“This builds on work we’ve already been doing, but it puts a workforce focus into the design of transformation,” Stout said.

The seven colleges joining the initial cohort and the ATD Network include:
Berkshire Community College (Massachusetts)
Clovis Community College (New Mexico)
Columbia-Greene Community College (New York)
Halifax Community College (North Carolina)
Louisiana State University-Eunice
Northwest Mississippi Community College
Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College

The initiative is funded by the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., The Community Focus Fund at the Chicago Community Foundation, Walmart.org and Ascendium Education Group.

Equity and the economy

ATD — which focuses on evidence-based institutional improvement to boost success for all students — will work with the participating colleges a little differently than it usually does, Stout said. The colleges will have the typical ATD experiences, such as examining student data to detect gaps, but they also will do an analysis of workforce needs in their region, she said. That information will help guide what programs colleges need to modify or build for that demand.

For example, a college may want to strengthen its program focused on telehealth. It also may look to improve digital literacy, which provides foundational skills for digital jobs.

In selecting colleges for the initiative, which will run from January 2021 through February 2023, ATD sought institutions that already had started on some of this work and had the capacity to grow, Stout said. As a guide, it used ATD’s seven fundamentals of creating a student-success culture, such as commitment from leadership (including the president, board and faculty) and a capacity for data analysis. Serving a diverse student population in rural communities, including Pell Grant-eligible students and students of color, was also important.

Sharing experiences

The initiative will include a “learning community” to allow participating colleges to interact with each other. For example, the colleges will meet virtually this week at the ATD conference and again this summer.

The project also will provide participating colleges with coaches who have deep rural leadership experiences as well as coaches with a workforce development background, Stout said.

“It’s a different kind of combination than our typical leadership coach and data coach,” she said.

Stout said an evaluation built into the initiative will gather information to shape promising practices to share with other colleges.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.