Providing higher education access for rural learners in the United States has pushed state leaders in Kentucky to think about building a new university and the USDA to help sustain the financial health of some colleges to prevent an “education desert” in the region. One foundation is stepping up to bridge these underserved students’ college and university access.
The ECMC Foundation, a national higher ed nonprofit, has launched the Rural Impact Initiative. The program’s main objective is to ensure rural students do not need to leave their regions to receive a high-quality postsecondary education.
“College graduates contribute to their home communities by playing critical roles in workforce development, civic engagement and overall economic success, yet postsecondary education systems too often struggle to graduate learners from underserved communities,” said Dan Fisher, president and CEO of ECMC Group.
Fisher believes the initiative will better leverage regional partnerships and provide more robust workforce development opportunities for rural college students.
About 46 million Americans live in sparsely settled rural communities, according to the USDA. This group is overrepresented among students who’ve attended college without earning a degree, wrote Stephanie Sowl, a program officer for the Foundation.
Lower revenues, from tuition and other sources, leave rural colleges with fewer resources to put students on viable career pathways that will accelerate socioeconomic mobility, Sowl argues.
The Rural Impact Initiative aims to uplift rural learners through three critical investments: developing knowledge, building the capacity of rural-serving institutions and supporting community-based organizations.
The initiative has already begun to make some headway. Thanks to a $1 million investment, CivicLab, a nonprofit focused on civic collaboration, has pledged to work with 10 rural community colleges to strengthen education and employment partnerships. Another $748,000 investment in the Institute of Evidence-Based Change will allow the student equity nonprofit to create a network of 18 rural community colleges focused on student connectedness and success
“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,” wrote Sowl.