a bald white man sits in front of a computer at a table with a latino man wearing a black cap.
UC-Berkeley anthropologist Seth Holmes (left) became an unlikely “champion” for Rafael Lopez-Librado, the son of migrant farmers in the Central Valley of California whose college dream we reported on last year. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos)

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

Across the country, rural educators are grappling with evolving workforce demands in fascinating ways.

In Florida: The Everglades are about to become a $300 million economic hub with the creation of the new Airglades International Airport … if the region can attract the 1,400 workers it needs.

In Indiana: A county whose limestone sheaths the Empire State Building and the National Cathedral is converting a prison education program into a broader adult workforce redevelopment initiative.

In New Mexico: An education collaborative founded to get Taos students better internet during the COVID-19 pandemic is working to create more career opportunities outside of just tourism for its diverse Latino and indigenous populations.

These are three of the five communities that CivicLab — a Columbus, Indiana-based education nonprofit — has been working with in an effort to increase educational capacity in rural areas.

The project began two years ago, with a $750,000 grant awarded by Ascendium Education Group.

Full disclosure: Ascendium sponsors my work here at Open Campus. I was not asked by Ascendium to report on CivicLab’s work, and you can read more about our editorial independence policy here.

The lessons from each of these communities are compelling, and we will explore some of them in future editions of Mile Markers.

However, after recently speaking with Dakota Pawlicki, director of Talent Hubs at CivicLab, it was clear that there are several national trends about rural higher ed worth spotlighting in today’s edition.

1. The role of unlikely champions

Pawlicki further expanded my understanding of the types of champions rural areas can lean on. For example, a local county judge was a key partner to getting justice-involved individuals into workforce retraining programs in rural Duval County, Texas, nearly two hours inland of Corpus Christi.

Regular readers of Mile Markers may not find this to be a huge surprise — : after all, we’ve spotlighted the ways surprising mentors can make a huge difference in rural spaces, from Kansas to California and Colorado.

“In a lot of urban and suburban areas, you have to refer to institutional organizational leadership to spur change,” Pawlicki says. But in rural communities, folks wear a lot of different hats, creating a different set of trust and reputational factors.

“One of the generalizable pieces of advice is to think of a broader set of stakeholders when going about doing this work,” Pawlicki says. “We are constantly finding unlikely champions.”

2. The notion of rural uniqueness

At a lot of national organizations, there is a persistent perception that rural colleges and communities are at a deficit, Pawlicki says. CivicLab tries to push against that with the way it approaches its community building and education efforts.

“We really focus on examining and asking what questions organizations are asking, because, oftentimes, we are asking the wrong one,” Pawlicki says. “So then it becomes about more interesting questions, like: ‘What do you have going for you, for your community?”

One example: CivicLab tries to push communities to find novel solutions within the programs that are already working in their communities, rather than starting some new initiative to reach their goals.

That attitude shines through with the work being done in Lawrence County, Indiana, where local employers were thrilled with a prison workforce retraining program … and started asking for more.

“The program was primarily for people who were currently in the justice system, or people who had recently exited. They would earn credentials tied to a job with high demand, and employers were saying “We need more of this,” Pawlicki says, before chuckling.

“Now, obviously we don’t want to send more people to jail just to get more people into this program. But what if we just opened up this existing program that’s already staffed, and start including people who aren’t in the justice system?”

That thinking led to expanding the program to other area adults who needed ongoing career education and training, a particularly valuable addition considering that there are no community colleges or four-year universities in the county.

3. How do rural communities get to define themselves?

Pawlicki used to work at the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, another funder of Open Campus. He notes that the grant requirements for national education philanthropies often come from a well-meaning place but end up forcing rural communities to define themselves not by what they have, but what they are lacking.

There are many institutional reasons why that is the case. It can be difficult to define rural, as I noted in our very first edition of Mile Markers, and that definitional challenge causes problems when trying to fund education innovation in rural areas.

“At the federal level, there are somewhere between 22 to 25 different rural definitions across agencies, and private philanthropy asks communities to prove they are rural,” Pawlicki says.

“We went about our request for proposals in a different way: We said, ‘Don’t worry about sharing all your demographic data with us. If it’s publicly available data, we’ll grab it ourselves. Instead, tell us about your place, and tell us about your people.”

That approach led CivicLab to notice a curious trend. CivicLab received 10 qualified proposals, generally from three different places: those that were “truly rural” by most metrics, those that were in a neighboring county and “rural-adjacent,” and, finally, those that were “rural-serving” but not rural themselves.

“We found that the further away you were from being truly rural-located, the more deficit-language you ended up using in your proposal,” Pawlicki notes, saying those submissions typically included more stats about poverty rates and unemployment rolls.

“Through the trends and data points were similar, proposals from truly rural places took less of a ‘here’s how poor we are’ approach, and more of a ‘here is our rich history: here are the people who came from our community.’”

For Pawlicki, that discovery made it even clearer to him that any definition of rural that does include primary data – that is, insight and information from the people within those communities – is insufficient.

It was also a reminder that rural communities aren’t often given the same opportunity to tout their special nature as urban and suburban communities might.

“As funding agencies and policymakers, we let cities do this all the time: They routinely boast their unique assets when competing for high-profile federal investments,” Pawlicki says. “We don’t allow rural America to do the same thing … or at the very least, we don’t give it the same weight.”

yellow wild flowers sit in the foreground of a mountain landscape
A view from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos)

More Rural Higher Ed News

The opportunity of rural community colleges. The Fifth Federal Reserve District — comprising a district that includes Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia and most of West Virginia — released a report analyzing the critical role of community colleges in rural communities, noting that universities and hospital systems typically receive more recognition as “anchor institutions.”

“To the extent that they play a role in ensuring opportunities and achieving efficient outcomes in rural areas, community colleges may represent an undervalued opportunity,” the report concluded.

Wyoming starts student-centered learning efforts. The Cowboy State started its push for instruction and assessments that better align with students’ needs at a kick-off event in Casper, Wyo. that included a keynote from Governor Mark Gordon.

Montana launches statewide micro-credential program. 12 Montana colleges and universities are collaborating with the Education Design Lab, local employers, and other stakeholders to create 12-20 short-term credentialing programs that lead to an associate degree or immediate employment in economically critical fields.

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.