Rural Community Colleges Collaborate to Build Economic Opportunity

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Rural Community Colleges Collaborate to Build Economic Opportunity

A coalition of nationwide rural community colleges is working to address inequities, improve educational outcomes, and grow economic opportunity through the Rural Guided Pathways Project.

The project, which launched in 2022 and will run through 2024, is spearheaded by the National Center for Inquiry & Improvement (NCII). The first of its kind to specifically serve rural institutions, the initiative is based on the Guided Pathway reform concept developed at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, which is built on four pillars: clarifying pathways to end goals, helping students choose and enter pathways, helping students stay on path, and ensuring students are learning. 

Using this framework, the objective of the rural-focused project is to ultimately create a better student experience, build a network of cross-sector community partners to increase financial and social mobility, and implement evidence-based reforms to address education and workforce inequities.

The 16 participating schools include rural community colleges, technical colleges, and other two-year institutions. Each school is required to select five or six community partners to help build a cohesive pathway for students. These partners often include local and regional employers, economic development organizations, and K-12 schools.

“Every community college should be the engine of economic opportunity in its region, but colleges cannot do this work alone,” writes Brian Shonk, EdD, chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, a participating school. “Community college leaders must play a more active role in bringing stakeholders together with the explicit goal of improving economic mobility. The demand for rural college leaders’ time is greater than ever, but we cannot neglect this part of our jobs. The best way to serve our students is to act not only as college leaders, but also as community leaders.”

Strategies to advance project goals include hiring more diverse faculty members; organizing regular conversations with faculty, staff, and students regarding race; building relationships with Minority-Serving Institutions; and bolstering campus advising and support services to help meet students’ basic needs. In addition to working with community partners in their region, participating colleges learn from each other by developing frameworks that can be applied to other rural, two-year institutions.

“Because rural institutions have fewer resources — faculty and staff, technology, and actual dollars — they can benefit from developing a shared responsibility framework,” writes Vicky Wood, president of Washington State Community College, one of the participating institutions.

Over the course of the two-year project, college representatives attend six two-and-a-half day institutes focused on creating an infrastructure of opportunity, integrating student financial stability structures, and cross-disciplinary learning. Each college is also assigned a Rural Pathways coach who helps in the implementation of campus reforms through in-person and virtual visits. The institutions also have access to subject matter experts that can assist with such functions as community engagement, workforce development, and building K-12 partnerships.

This article was published in our June 2023 issue.