New initiative supports rural community colleges

Rural students were on the verge of battling amid COVID-19.

The Federal Communications Commission has found that a quarter of Americans – 14.5 million people – in rural areas do not have high-speed Internet access. Rural completion rates before the pandemic were already low, with just 42% of rural high school students graduating within six years, according to a 2018 study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Marta Urquilla

That is why Education Design Lab, a nonprofit organization for innovation in higher education, will focus on supporting rural community colleges in its new initiative, titled “Building Rural Innovation, Designing Educational Strategies “Or” BRIDGES “.

Funded by a $ 1.9 million grant from Ascendium Education Group, a student loan guarantor and philanthropic education organization, the three-year project will help five community colleges improve access to colleges and better meet the needs of local labor.

“From the digital divide, education deserts and other long-standing disparities in access to education, health care, and economic opportunity, rural America has long been an afterthought in our country’s efforts to boost post-secondary opportunities and learner success, ”said Amy Kerwin, vice president of educational philanthropy at Ascendium Education Group. “In an era when COVID-19 exposes the wage and equity gap, this innovation lab will help identify new, impact-driven approaches to foster greater educational and economic opportunities in historically underprivileged rural communities. invested. “

In the first phase of the initiative, Education Design Lab will begin by researching the challenges facing rural community colleges, their students, and their surrounding economies based on currently available data. The organization will also invite rural community colleges to submit proposals for a design challenge. By January, it will select five community college partners who will work alongside Education Design Lab staff to design new models to strengthen economic opportunities for their students and surrounding communities. The experiences and conclusions of the colleges will ultimately be distilled into a manual that can serve as a guide for other rural institutions.

Dr Vanessa A. SansoneDr Vanessa A. Sansone

The organization chose to focus on community colleges because they tend to serve the underfunded, “the learners that higher education was never really designed to serve in the first place,” said Marta Urquilla. , responsible for the Education Design Lab program.

And the goal is not only to come up with solutions that focus on rural graduate students, but to look at them “holistically”, in the context of the economic health of their communities and the role their colleges play. community could play.

“A lot of times higher education is completion oriented, and yes, that is important,” she added. “But we are really interested in what will position itself [students] for lifelong success? “

She expects there will be many possible answers to this question. Community colleges could exit the initiative with new partnerships with local industries or K-12 education, student entrepreneurship investment projects, virtual internship ideas, opportunities to expand broadband access – solutions as diverse as the rural communities themselves that take into account racial inequalities and “historic divestment.”

Dr Vanessa Sansone, who studies rural students as an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio, stressed that, in order to work with rural populations, it is essential to recognize this diversity – and that rural does not mean white. She noted that rural students include Native American students, Latinx students from the Texas-Mexico border region, and black students from the Mississippi Delta, among others.

“The rural is not homogeneous,” Sansone said. There are “intersectional identities at play”, and this has an impact on the needs of rural students.

As Education Lab’s idea for a rural community college program predated the pandemic, COVID-19 shed light on the needs of rural students – and the communities around them.

“Local economies need a way to recover quickly from this crisis, and workers and learners need a way to quickly find meaningful work that pays them average or higher wages,” Urquilla said. “So, can we take advantage of the opportunities and resources that are available to us right now? What are the skills that can take someone from a low-paying or entry-level position and match them to higher wages? “

Sansone pointed out that inequalities for rural students are unfortunately deeply rooted. Many rural communities face high poverty rates and students have historically had problems accessing broadband, sometimes going to the nearest town to submit applications or complete admission forms, but now everything is online. Academics and advocates like her feel they “must have shouted even louder” on behalf of rural students during the crisis.

But she also described it as a time of hope. From her research, she found rural students eager to give back to their communities and fill the workforce gaps they have seen grow. As they witness the disparities in healthcare in rural areas amid COVID-19, she expects that sense of responsibility and “community identity” to be even stronger.

“It doesn’t leave them when they walk into our college spaces – that idea that it’s a community effort and a willingness to give back,” she said.

Urquilla also sees this as a time of growth.

“Our hope is that these five institutions … embark on a new experience to not only connect their learners to the degrees they need, but also to economic mobility and pathways that benefit their communities as a whole,” he said. she declared.

Sara Weissman can be contacted at [email protected]

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