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How Interviews with 100s of Rural Learners are Shaping New Program Models for our BRIDGES Rural Cohort

Since our BRIDGES Rural initiative kicked off last spring, we’ve been asking: How might we strengthen the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities? At the Lab, we always aim to tackle these big, messy, systems questions by starting with learners—learners who are attending our schools of focus, those in the workforce that are interested in or might benefit from re-engaging in college, learners who attended previously but were unable to complete, and potential learners in the greater community. Our work with five community colleges through BRIDGES Rural is no different. Since January, we’ve worked with our cohort to conduct comprehensive research with nearly 500 learners, institutional faculty, and other community stakeholders about their experiences.


What did we hear?

The communities involved in our cohort—spanning Idaho Falls, Idaho; Bangor, Maine; Canandaigua, New York; Marietta and Zanesville, Ohio—and the learners and stakeholders we heard from highlighted the rich diversity and strengths of rural places, underscored systemic and institutional barriers, and identified opportunities that exist to build on what works well. While unique themes exist at individual colleges, much of what we heard can be mapped across rural institutions. And, many of these shared themes in experience are true for learners beyond rural spaces.

#1 Many rural learners value connections to their homes and communities and want to feel this sense of rootedness more deeply at school

Strong relationships and consistent, accessible, transparent communication with faculty, staff, advisors, and other learners can support learners’ success.

#2 Learners need to feel embraced as their whole selves at their schools and in their communities.

Systemic inequities and dominant cultures have shaped vastly different experiences for learners based on race, gender, sexuality, age, and whether they are a caretaker or not. Historic underinvestment in diverse rural communities contribute to some learners experiencing a greater sense of belonging than others do.


#3 Learners want to build family-sustaining careers where they can grow, feel fulfilled, and contribute to their communities.

To make informed choices about their education and careers, people benefit from understanding the opportunities, earning potential, and possible paths associated with different careers in their communities so they can decide what their individual journey will look like and see the ROI of their education in terms of their goals. The fundamental structures of learning experiences need to be redesigned to align with learners’ hopes, goals, and life experiences and to reflect local career opportunities. Rural communities’ colleges can play a major role in preparing community members for in-demand jobs and in working with their broad-reaching networks to support economic growth and well-being.

#4 Learners benefit from opportunities to access learning and support in ways that meet them where they’re at and fit flexibly with their lives.

For rural learners, barriers related to childcare, transportation, distance, finances, basic needs, broadband internet access, belonging, and time can be interconnected in ways that make success in school feel out of reach, frustrating learners’ sense of growth and agency.


#5 Many learners need and want greater opportunities to combine work and learning, and rural community colleges have the potential to be “hubs” that connect community members with learning opportunities that address regional workforce gaps.

Partnerships are essential to this and should exist between multiple stakeholders in rural communities.


700 Ideas: What Happens When You Have a Holistic Understanding of Community Experience

Each of our five community college partners worked with the Lab to bring together comprehensive data about their learners’ experiences, their institutions, and their communities more broadly. We curated this research into virtual galleries that hundreds of people from across each school’s region explored. Based on what they learned through their gallery walks, the cohort collectively came up with almost 700 ideas to tackle their design question. These ideas range from focusing on holistic support, career development and employer engagement, advising, pathway design, diversity and inclusion, and more. Here are just a few examples:

  • Community-Powered Single Parent One Stop with multi-generational programming and resources, including transportation assistance, financial resources, and academic and career supports.
  • Provide industry-driven micro-pathways in partnership with employers large and small, delivered in a distributed way throughout the region for close proximity to learners and employers.  
  • Establishing a Chief Diversity Officer at the college to promote and celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion across the campus and the broader community, informing learner support strategies, program and curriculum design, community outreach, and policy change across the institution.
  • Embed the college as a strong community presence with expanded student and community engagement outside the classroom through sports, volunteer opportunities, events, clubs, and more. 
  • Appalachian Arts College to re-enliven Appalachian culture and crafts, engage local artisans, and offer learners free tuition for working at the college.
  • Create “Roadmaps to Success” that will help learners to visualize the diverse number of ways to pursue career and personal goals from entry to completion.


Want to dig in deeper?

Feel free to peruse the BRIDGES virtual gallery walks within our community of practice, hosted by our partner Participate:

In March, we released “Walk in My Shoes”: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework to Foster Growth, Belonging, and Agency. Many themes we heard from learners in our BRIDGES cohort echoed calls we’ve heard from our work with 100s of learners over the last seven years. This framework dives in a bit deeper to provide tangible suggestions that can better a learner’s sense of growth, agency, and belonging, and in turn, give learners the opportunities and resources they need to meet their goals.


How We Got it Done—Thank You to Our Partners!

Collaboration among the Lab, the BRIDGES Rural cohort, and key partners made these gallery walks and our research possible. Higher Ed Insight, our BRIDGES evaluation partner, compiled and visualized powerful quantitative data for our gallery walks. To complement this with qualitative data, Urban Rural Action helped the Lab team conduct interviews with learners and other community members, which you can learn more about in this Areas of Agreement podcast episode focusing on our collaboration. 


Up Next: Prototyping

Next up, the BRIDGES teams will prototype, test, and continue to iterate on their big ideas, moving steadily toward pilot launches in partnership with their communities. Want to stay up to date with our BRIDGES Rural work? Follow us on Twitter @BridgesRural for frequent shareouts of our BRIDGES learnings and @eddesignlab for general Lab updates and opportunities to connect!

Stay tuned for our series of insight briefs soon to be published about unlocking the potential of rural learners!  

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