Investing in Two-Year Colleges to Support Rural Communities

The education-to-workforce pipeline is most critical in rural communities, according to a report released in June by the Education Design Lab (the Lab). In partnership with the Ascendium Education Group, the Lab launched BRIDGES Rural Design Challenge, Part 1, which focuses on why there should be greater investment in rural community college learners.

The research gathered in this project will be used as development models for rural colleges as part of a larger effort to respond to needs in regional labor markets, eventually enabling greater economic agility.

“Community colleges are really taking a front seat in economic development and support,” Sarah Parker, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Washington State Community College, said. “Shifting our focus to technical, hands-on programs that serve local needs has become priority for rural community colleges.”

Started in April 2020, the Lab’s multi-year initiative spotlights five community colleges from across the country: College of Eastern Idaho, Eastern Maine Community College, Finger Lakes Community College, Washington State Community College and Zane State College. Each of these schools will undergo a “human-centered” redesign, consisting of four phases: understand, ideate, prototype and launch.

According to data from the US Census Bureau, 60% of the nation’s counties are mostly or completely rural, with about 42 million people. And high-speed internet infrastructure is one of the foremost challenges for these communities. In fact, The Center on Rural Innovation says that 39% of rural school districts, versus 10% of urban and suburban districts, lack broadband access. Therefore, rural community colleges often serve as the only place for community members to access free, reliable, high-speed broadband, yet many learners still do not have access to devices such as computers and printers.

In addition to student struggles, the report shows that rural college staff often have barriers to high-speed internet and devices as well, which was especially difficult when faculty was expected to move to remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, many of these professors lacked proper training or professional development before starting hybrid teaching.

Beyond access, community colleges hold a unique position in being a part of the community’s workforce training. With the rise of remote working in many industries, especially in IT and healthcare, online courses and certificates are becoming more of the norm and creating an opportunity for community colleges to expand their offerings.

From the BRIDGES, Phase 1 report: “As business and industry shift to a skills-based economy, there is a need to represent learning through the language of skills and competencies. More institutions are beginning to offer micro-credentials as a way to chunk learning and more specifically identify skills and competencies that learners have developed.” 

 In addition, community colleges have proved to be an important center for creating a sense of inclusion for many rural learners and community members.

“It was surprising how important a sense of belonging and inclusion is to so many students,” Parker said. “I think we assume that rural communities are a homogenous group, when the reality is that our students have so many perspectives and experiences and have such a wide variety of needs.”

But rural community colleges can serve as champions for growing and changing community needs. They can serve as advocates and designers of programs, pathways and services that connect people in historically underinvested communities, according to the report. They accomplish this by connecting people to resources, services and work opportunities, and by increasing the capacity of communities to support themselves.

However, Henry Bohleke, dean of career technical education, College of Eastern Idaho, warns that administrations need to be asking communities what they need rather than just telling them what is perceived as their needs.

“A complaint that I have heard for many years of my career is that sometimes educational institutions come into rural areas with preconceived notions of what the communities need and fail to listen to those communities,” Bohleke said.

In order to move forward, Bohleke said there needs to be better communication between the schools and the communities.

“Although the grant is helping us to better understand our rural communities there is always opportunity for improvement and making sure that we are serving the needs of those communities. That can be very difficult unless we keep an open mind and recognize that there may have been mistakes made in the past that may have harmed the relationships and we are willing admit past problems and move forward with the understanding that we both want the same things from the relationship. Colleges and communities both want to have educated people that bring living-wage jobs to the community.”

When community colleges are ready to implement these model changes, it will require administrations that are willing to get out of their comfort zones and approach their communities.

“Administrators at community college would serve their local community best by seeking feedback from all stakeholders,” Parker said. “To understand how to serve adult learners and traditional students, we need to understand the various needs and work together with community partners to make sure all who wish to pursue higher education are supported.”