A new project is examining ways rural public two-year colleges can better serve their communities, especially as economic engines and workforce pipelines.
The Education Design Lab on Wednesday released the first brief in a series on developing models that improve outcomes for rural learners and their communities. One goal is to make a case for more investment in rural community colleges.
Five colleges are participating in the BRIDGES Rural Design Challenge — Eastern Maine Community College, Finger Lakes Community College (New York), Washington State Community College (Ohio), Zane State College (Ohio) and College of Eastern Idaho.
The brief notes that rural areas have much-untapped potential. For example, as employers struggle to find skilled workers, a growing number of industries — from customer services to software, IT to healthcare — are using technology to train and employ workers, which can provide a pipeline to tap workers in rural areas.
A shift to a more skills-based economy also opens opportunities in rural areas. Offering shorter-term, stackable “micro-credentials” may be more appealing and affordable for rural residents, the brief says.
Ideas to explore
The paper lists opportunities for innovation in rural areas. For example, colleges can partner with K-12 systems to connect earlier with students in helping them learn about the benefits of a postsecondary education and to explore career opportunities. Community colleges also can help foster a sense of belonging in rural areas among populations that can feel excluded in tightly knit communities. This includes people of different races and ethnicities, classes, sexual and gender orientations, people with disabilities and more.
“Institutions may not be aware of the full diversity of their potential learners across these different areas, especially with immigration and domestic migration shifting the make-up of rural populations,” the brief says.
Researchers note that there is often uncertainty and even pushback on the perceived value of college in rural areas. They are also sometimes suspicious that college often results in people leaving the rural area when they attain a credential. Colleges can help to improve the understanding of their value, especially when it comes to careers and earnings, the brief says.
“By focusing on programs that lead to living-wage careers they can pursue locally — or those with ample remote work opportunities — and getting the word out to community members about the learning and employment options available to them in the area, colleges can market their offerings as supporting a commitment to place,” the brief says.
The project is funded by the Ascendium Education Group.