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Introducing the Rural Impact Initiative

By Dr. Stephanie Sowl, Program Officer

January 30, 2024

Students walking outside.

The launch of ECMC Foundation’s new Rural Impact Initiative builds on the recognition that rural institutions and learners have needs, opportunities and assets that differ broadly from their more urban and suburban counterparts. The framework for this new initiative takes into account learnings from the Foundation’s 19 related grants made over the span of several years and more than $8 million in funding. It is also informed by comprehensive research and input from the field, as well as by my own professional and personal experiences.

To be able to lead this initiative is deeply meaningful to me. As the child of parents raised in rural agricultural communities, I grew up around family who were skeptical about a college education, even as they recognized the high unemployment and low educational attainment that disinvestment had created in our community. Though my hometown of Rockford, Illinois, isn’t itself a rural community, the challenges of making it through higher education proved comparable, and the lack of opportunity for me to thrive there once I had my degree was striking. When I later worked as a research analyst at Arizona State University, it became even clearer to me how students living on and beyond the spatial margins of denser areas get marginalized and under-resourced in higher education, often inadvertently.

As I later studied in my PhD dissertation and subsequent publications, the effects of this imbalance are profound. Roughly 46 million Americans live in what the federal government designates as rural areas: relatively sparsely settled communities with small populations that are relatively isolated from large cities. The population with some college credit but no degree is overrepresented in rural areas, possibly because rural areas have a high proportion of education deserts, or perhaps because college aspirations for rural learners tend to be shaped by local labor market opportunities.

The truth is, we don’t quite know yet. There is a shocking dearth of reliable data available on rural learners and institutions, or on the results of strategies to encourage college graduates to return.

Rural residents tend to graduate high school at higher rates (90%) than their counterparts from denser areas (82–87%), but access to college (and thus enrollment and completion rates) remains an issue. Further, while more than two million rural learners are currently enrolled in postsecondary programs, they often face culture shocks on campuses and in educational systems that were designed for students from different backgrounds.

All this has negative effects, not only on the individual students and their families but also on their communities. When college graduates like me leave home and don’t return, in favor of living in a more urban area, the community experiences “brain drain,” which perpetuates the perceived lack of opportunity and very real lack of investment in such communities.

Yet research shows that college graduates can be an outsized boon to their home communities. They can play critical roles in their community's development by replenishing the population, generating jobs, increasing the labor supply of knowledge economy workers, the demand for goods and services, and building collective action and political change through sharing new knowledge, ideas and practices.

Simply put, huge swaths of the country need rural learners to persist in high-quality postsecondary education, and for rural institutions to rise to the occasion as service providers. Yet there exists a twofold problem. First, we don’t yet know how well rural institutions are doing in the first place because of the lack of research. Second, one thing we do know is that rural institutions bring in less tuition and fee revenue, state appropriations and philanthropic funding compared to non-rural counterparts, so they must operate with fewer overall resources. This urgent question of how to build the capacity of rural-serving institutions, reach more rural students and create career pathways that offer social and economic mobility is thus at the heart of the Rural Impact Initiative, and it’s one for which we look forward to investigating meaningful answers.

This begins with learning, both through grantees’ research projects and through ECMC Foundation’s own learning and evaluation (L&E) process. Prior to the Rural Impact Initiative’s approval by the ECMC Foundation Board of Directors in October 2023, the L&E team conducted a thorough evaluation of the Foundation’s previous work in this area, examining 19 different grants. As we’ve now seen, rural community colleges can be socioeconomic anchors, partnering with local employers and chambers of commerce to align their programming with workforce needs. They can also engineer dual enrollment options with their local school districts and host cultural events or provide library resources to the broader populace. While we still know very little about four-year rural-serving institutions and have limited data from the perspective of rural learners, we can view those as areas for immediate exploration and opportunity.

Beyond individual institutions, we found that some rural communities focus on building skills for various industries, which could be an important strategy going forward. The Georgia Department of Education’s new Office of Rural Education and Innovation is one example of a driver of partnerships among local chambers of commerce, economic development and K–12 and postsecondary institutions that result in more residents’ earning credentials that align with regional workforce needs. Information technology, for instance, has applications spanning sectors and geography, and often leads to jobs that can be filled remotely. Rural areas are likewise good for bridging sectors that typically exist in silos; from previous Foundation grants, we have seen institutions hire trained professionals like Journey Lineman, who can better connect their colleagues in the field and in the union with students and trainees.

Leveraging these assets and possibilities requires place-based partners that understand rural stakeholder engagement, because residents of more remote areas often do feel disengaged from or left out by the wider world, and their hometowns lack the economies of scale that, for instance, an urban community might bring. Capacity building therefore needs to be a major part of any effort, including not only directly relevant elements like data, shared services with faculty and staff, grant writing, implementing student success initiatives, strategic planning and finance but also finding ways to address community conditions, including poverty, limited access to transportation, childcare, affordable housing and broadband internet.

With all this in mind, the Rural Impact Initiative will proceed with a three-pronged strategy design aimed at developing knowledge, building capacity of rural-serving institutions and supporting community-based organizations.

Already, we’ve begun identifying grantees to start implementing this strategy. For example, with an investment of $620,000, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education will formalize its Rural Learning Network as a Community of Practice alongside state strategy development through its EdQuest Coalition. Its goal is to help ensure 65% of Georgia’s adults have earned a postsecondary degree by 2033 while deepening engagement with state and community leaders. With an investment of $748,000, the Institute for Evidence-Based Change will expand and adapt its Caring Campus model at up to 18 new rural community colleges and establish a membership network and resource database to further promote student connectedness and success. The program aims to support a minimum of 28,000 students by engaging about 2,000 faculty and staff and sharing lessons learned about working with rural colleges. With an investment of nearly $1 million from ECMC Foundation, CivicLab will identify 10 rural communities to develop, implement and institutionalize strategies to strengthen education and employment partnerships. The goal is to develop stronger talent systems for tomorrow’s economy through increased student credential completion, post-credential employment and employer engagement rates. Though strategies will vary across partnerships, all will implicate system-level policy and practice change within postsecondary institutions, workforce agencies, employers, industry groups and community agencies.

As the Rural Impact Initiative expands, we are excited to see it continue to take shape and support the transformation of postsecondary education in rural communities nationwide.

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