Innovative Strategies to Close Postsecondary Attainment Gaps




Four Regional Approaches to Support Rural Students

Rural America has been largely abandoned by higher education for too long.

Nearly 41 million American adults live 25 miles or more from the nearest university or college, or in areas where only a single community college offers accessible public higher education.1 This physical isolation leads to stark economic inequities, where the wealthiest 10 percent of the nation’s zip codes are considered “college-rich” metro areas while a majority of the poorest zip codes are classified as rural.2 As employers across the country continue to struggle to fill vacancies with a workforce that does not have the postsecondary training required for the majority of our nation’s future jobs, rural residents in particular face significant challenges in achieving upward economic mobility. Furthermore, the restricted access to educational opportunity impacts rural communities’ economic development as they lack the business and cultural amenities that higher education institutions often generate in more densely-populated areas.

Fortunately, there are several rural communities across the nation that have more recently committed to expanding postsecondary opportunities for their residents and are seeing early and exciting success due to their innovative strategies. This guidebook outlines three leading strategies that have yielded promise in four such communities—Columbus, IN; Elkhart County, IN; Rio Grande Valley, TX; Shasta County, CA—that have been designated as “Talent Hub” Communities by Lumina Foundation, with support from the Kresge Foundation, primarily for their ability to truly work across different sectors to significantly increase college-level learning among residents of all backgrounds.

Researchers at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) spoke with stakeholders involved with the Talent Hubs initiative in each of these communities to learn more about the development, implementation, and equity concerns at the heart of programs impacting rural students. Each community emphasized: (1) the importance of understanding the specific postsecondary barriers their respective populations faced; (2) the critical need for higher education to be creative in challenging its traditional methods of recruiting and serving students; and (3) needing to intentionally form partnerships between education and workforce stakeholders to lead to more positive outcomes for not only students but the community at large. This guidebook outlines these three strategies, with excerpts from in-depth conversations with each community, and concludes by sharing key recommendations and advice from these four Talent Hubs for likeminded rural communities who are interested in raising their attainment rates and revving their engines of economic growth.

In Columbus, located in Southwest Indiana, the EcO Network is a Community Education Coalition initiative that has been working for over a decade with partners in the region to address adult education needs. The Network consists of education, business, and community partnerships with a shared goal of increasing secondary and postsecondary attainment rates, which are currently insufficient to meet local workforce demands. The Powerhouse Credentials Crosswalk created by the EcO Network aims to raise awareness and understanding of the credentials in high demand by regional employers. The community found that by reconnecting adult education to a broader pathway they were able to form lasting relationships with students and lead them in the direction of educational attainment.

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