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Rural Community Colleges Utilize Strengths and Assets to Improve Learner Success

April 24, 2023 4-minute read
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More than 1.5 million Americans attend one of over 400 rural community colleges across the country. These institutions play an important role as education providers to learners from low-income backgrounds. They are also essential hubs for generating upward mobility and driving talent development in their regions.

It's why we’re pleased to see the work of several rural community colleges that participated in Ascendium-funded grant projects featured in the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program’s (CEP) newest report, Rural Community College Excellence: Guide to Delivering Strong Opportunity for Students and Communities. This guide was developed by the Institute to share examples of high-achieving rural colleges uncovered through data analyses of student outcomes, interviews with college leaders, virtual and in-person site visits and convenings of leaders of rural colleges. The 13 rural community colleges profiled in the report demonstrate exceptional outcomes aligned with CEP’s comprehensive definition of equitable student success. The insights gleaned from the practices of these high-performing rural colleges will also inform CEP’s curriculum for community college leadership and provide the broader field with insights about how rural colleges and others can transform to better serve learners.

West Kentucky Community and Technical College (WKCTC) provides a strong example of what can happen when workforce programs and pathways to bachelor’s degrees are in alignment with in-demand jobs in their local labor market. A previous finalist for the Aspen Prize, a national contest that recognizes exceptional outcomes in student success and equity in community colleges, WKCTC connected with partners in the local river barge industry to better understand their labor needs. They then worked to create a certificate in diesel technology that enables deckhands to be promoted into boat maintenance and captain roles. This certificate articulates into an associate degree, and that associate degree articulates to a bachelor’s degree at University of Kentucky. By working together with industry, the community college was able to help fill a gap in an unmet labor demand and provide a pathway for upward mobility for local community members.

Excellent rural community colleges have also found ways to tame skepticism about the value of postsecondary education and careers in certain industries. Because unstable manufacturing jobs had left their community before, leaders at Patrick & Henry Community College (P&HCC), a participant of the National Center for Improvement and Inquiry’s (NCII) Rural Guided Pathways Project, had a hard time convincing learners to complete degrees in advanced manufacturing. They amped up outreach to learners, families and K-12 guidance counselors in their area to convince them that advanced manufacturing jobs in their community that offered stable employment and good wages. Enrollment has grown and advanced manufacturing courses are now more popular with learners.

We know developing and maintaining partnerships with employers and K-12, university and other community leaders is important as it informs high-quality job opportunities for learners. Leaders at excellent rural community colleges understand this too. The president of Northwest Iowa Community College (NICC), a 2023 Aspen Prize finalist, demonstrates what can be achieved through partnership. By participating in a standing bi-weekly meeting of city and county leadership, the K-12 superintendent and representatives from the state and congressional offices, the college has been able to help develop solutions to the community’s job needs and challenges.

Financial resources may be limited at smaller rural community colleges, but being small can also be a strength. Leaders and staff at P&HCC and NICC often serve in multiple roles that give them visibility and access to the learners that attend each of their colleges. By combining duties and roles, leaders and staff are able to better analyze data, prioritize which students need interventions from advisors and form a deeper understanding of what learners need to be successful in their education and career.

Like the Institute, we are inspired by the examples included in their newest report. Ascendium’s philanthropy elevates rural postsecondary education and workforce training and supports the adaptation of promising student success strategies that leverage the strengths of rural communities. The insights will reach many community college leaders through CEP’s curriculum and inform the field of technical assistance providers, including Ascendium grantees like NCII, student success centers and others. Each of these organizations are committed to helping colleges draw on examples of what works to transform their own practices. We hope other postsecondary institutions, whether they are considered rural or not, will utilize the information in the report to better support student success at their institutions.