7 rural community colleges join effort to boost student outcomes

The cohort will be part of an Achieving the Dream mission to close equity and achievement gaps, bolster digital workforce readiness and build 'resiliency' within their regions.
By: | February 18, 2021

More than 45 million U.S. residents live in rural communities, and many face challenges that those in urban areas don’t experience – chronic disease, a lack of infrastructure, access to good health care and notably lower academic outcomes.

Those issues have all become widely apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic as families in those locations struggle with job loss, literacy, mobility and access to a high-quality education.

Reversing those trends is one of the missions of Achieving the Dream, which has created a new initiative called Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work that hopes to boost the outcomes of students from those areas. Seven community colleges across the U.S. have been selected to lead the charge in amping up education through digital skill building that will help students achieve brighter futures. In addition, the institutions themselves will benefit by becoming more nimble in their ability to close equity and achievement gaps.

“Rural community colleges have long served as drivers of their communities’ economic and civic vitality, playing a critical role in ensuring social and economic mobility,” said Karen Stout, Achieving the Dream president and CEO. “As Achieving the Dream works to support our colleges in fostering diverse and equitable campuses, we are mindful of the importance of building a network that reflects the diversity of institutions across our country.”

Achieving the Dream, a national non-profit that works with more than 300 colleges and universities to “champion institutional improvement”, says the initial cohort will include:

The goal of the ATD effort, which is being supported by a number of corporations and organizations, is not only to guide community colleges who are undertaking a “whole-college approach” but to better develop students for jobs of tomorrow, helping them be more employable in careers that are higher quality and higher paying.

“We recognize that rural community colleges are anchors in their communities, providing opportunities for learners, employers and the local economy,” said Amy Kerwin, vice president of education philanthropy at Ascendium Education Group, one of those funding the initiative. “We’re pleased to support this cohort as they exchange ideas on how to initiate large-scale institutional change to prepare and increase the number of rural learners from low-income backgrounds that graduate and enter the workforce.”

The seven community colleges taking part started the process in January and will attend events throughout the year, including the ATD’s virtual DREAM 2021 that is happening today and tomorrow. Aside from those meetings, colleges will be assisted by coaches throughout their 5- to 7-year journey as they strengthen their capacity and data to tighten those gaps, build pathways and momentum, create community partnerships and boost student success through social and economic mobility.

Along the way, they will have access to and input on reports from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which provides regular updates on student outcomes and enrollment. Community colleges and those from low-income areas have been among the hardest hit in both enrollment and retention during the pandemic so the data is vital to help many of them as they position for the future.

Two of the partners helping to fund the project cited the important role community colleges play, especially in rural communities.

Julie Gehrki, vice president of philanthropy for Walmart.org, says “rural community colleges are well equipped to provide upskilling opportunities for the rapidly changing workforce in their areas.” And Monique Baptiste, Vice President of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, adds: “Equitable access to skills and real-world work experience is key to connecting students to good jobs, regardless of their ZIP code.”