Strengthening Education and Workforce Connections in Rural Communities

April 29, 2024

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Title: Implementing College and Career Pathways in Rural Communities: Strategies for Supporting Rural Economic Development by Connecting Education to Careers

Authors: Sarah Jenness, Charlotte Cahill, Daniel Minty, and Anna O’Connor

Source: Jobs for the Future

College and career pathways are integral to individual and regional socioeconomic mobility and stability. Jobs for the Future’s “Pathways to Prosperity” framework consists of five levers that can be connected to create school-to-career pathways: secondary-postsecondary integration, career navigation systems, work-based learning, intermediaries, and leadership and policy.

The authors of a new report distilled their existing framework to create one tailored to rural communities, promoting the inclusive and effective implementation of educational and career tracks. There are three major components of the rural college and career pathway framework: building on local strengths and context, prioritizing inclusive economic development, and embedding remote opportunities.

Local strengths and context

Fiscal and asset mapping can be advantageous for economic and workforce development in rural areas. Fiscal mapping determines how much funding is available and its alignment with regional needs. Asset mapping asks, “What are the in-demand jobs in our region that pay a living wage, and how do we prepare young people for those jobs?” (Jenness et al, 2024). Understanding the intricacies of specific rural economic contexts can shed light on both connections that students can use and pathways that need further development and structure. Establishing robust pathways between secondary and postsecondary institutions that rely on existing strengths within a community can combat skepticism about the benefits of higher education while improving the local economy.

Inclusive economic development

The average hourly wages for some of the largest industries in rural communities are lower than the national average hourly wage of $34.12. The manufacturing and health care industries, however, have been a mainstay of rural economies for years; they offer a myriad of jobs with livable wages. Industry partnerships with high schools or other local schools can establish school-to-workforce pathways and properly equip students with the knowledge and skills required to not only land a job but also secure long-term success and stability. If school-to-career pathways do not align with existing needs in the job market, pathway development can negatively impact local economies.

Wage disparity is even more pronounced among underrepresented minorities and women. For instance, Black workers in rural areas are underemployed at almost twice the rate of their White peers. Developing inclusive and accessible career pathways that equitably share well-paying, stable jobs could significantly improve equity in rural regions and local economic circumstances by bridging individual and industry needs.

Remote opportunities

Rural residents lack access to higher education opportunities: 82 percent of those living at least a 30-minute drive from a college or university, otherwise known as a “higher education desert,” live in rural communities. Online dual enrollment combats this problem and can help students prepare for college and even earn credit toward a degree or credential. Compared to the national average (16 percent), rural high school students (23 percent) participate in dual enrollment opportunities at a higher rate. Developing specific, data-driven pathways to the workforce for students will assuage worries around the transferability and value of dual enrollment.

Remote, work-based learning opportunities can provide rural workers with support for career entry or advancement and broaden their skills and knowledge. However, many rural residents require the resources and infrastructure to connect them to these remote opportunities. Creating coworking spaces, such as in office buildings or public libraries, would help deliver internet access to those without internet access at home and would also foster professional networking.

Considering the proposed framework, the authors provide several policy suggestions, spanning legislative and administrative levels. At the state level, policymakers should ensure rural voices are represented and their needs addressed. Expanding transportation options and broadband access can connect rural workers and students to educational and professional development opportunities. State-level, per-student funding models should not disadvantage rural K-12 and higher education systems with small student populations and should be intertwined with regional funding. At the institutional level, administrators and faculty can create flexible requirements to cultivate innovative educational models and support nontraditional students.

To read the full report and learn more about how to support rural postsecondary and career pathways, click here.

—Erica Swirsky

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