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Lab Launches New Initiative to Expand the Economic Impact of Rural Community Colleges

Kuttawa Kentucky aerial photo rural town

Education Design Lab, a national nonprofit and leader in the design, implementation, and scaling of new learning models for higher education and the future of work, today announced a $1.9 million grant from Ascendium Education Group to pilot new solutions and build the capacity of rural community colleges to respond to regional labor markets and the students they serve. The initiative—called Building Rural Innovation, Designing Educational Strategies or BRIDGES—will select five community college partners in fall 2020 who will work with Education Design Lab over the next three years to design and implement new pathways to postsecondary attainment and economic opportunity in rural communities.

“From the digital divide, education deserts and other long-running disparities in access to education, health care and economic opportunity, rural America has long been an afterthought in our nation’s efforts to boost postsecondary opportunity and learner success,” said Amy Kerwin, Vice President — Education Philanthropy at Ascendium Education Group. “At a time when COVID-19 is exposing wage and equity gaps, this laboratory for innovation will help identify new impact-oriented approaches for fostering greater educational and economic opportunity in historically-underinvested rural communities.“

The geography of rural America has contributed to gaps in college access and attainment. Rural counties cover 97 percent of the U.S. land area, but are home to just 14 percent of the country’s college campuses. As of 2018, just 42 percent of learners who attended a rural high school completed college within six years after high school graduation. More than 21 million adults living in rural counties do not have a college degree. According to the Federal Communications Commission, a quarter of rural citizens—a total of 14.5 million people—lack access to broadband internet, limiting their ability to study online.

According to the Center on Rural Innovation, rural communities are also more dependent than urban areas on industries that are at the highest risk of demand disruption by COVID-19 or inability to employ remote work.

The three-year initiative will kick off with a research phase, during which Education Design Lab will survey the landscape of existing national data and research on the challenges facing rural community colleges, their learners and local economies.

In August 2020, the Lab will issue a national, invitation-only RFP for rural community colleges or systems to participate in the Design Challenge. Education Design Lab’s team of education design and subject matter experts will work with selected institutions to identify barriers and design and test new models for how community colleges can expand economic opportunity in rural areas. At the conclusion of the design challenge, Education Design Lab will draw on insights from the collective experiences of the five community college partners to publish an informed practices manual on evolving needs of the rural learner population, as well as exemplar models that bring economic opportunity to rural communities and help talent adapt with agile workforce skills.

“A person’s ability to earn a quality education and succeed in their career should not be determined by their zip code. Yet millions of Americans in rural and remote communities are disconnected from the skills, networks and training experiences required to thrive in today’s economy,” said Marta Urquilla, chief program officer at Education Design Lab. “As COVID-19 has shown us, learning and work can happen anywhere. This work is about helping rural community colleges design for the future now. Through BRIDGES, these institutions can grow their capacity as drivers of innovation to enable greater economic mobility for rural learners.”

For more information, visit this press release on PR News Wire.


About Education Design Lab: Education Design Lab is a national nonprofit that designs, tests, and implements unique higher education models and credentials that address the rapidly changing economy and emerging technology opportunities. The Lab demonstrates where technology, rigor and design can improve opportunity for historically underserved learners to maximize their potential in the higher education system.

Education Design Lab works across disciplines and alongside schools, employers, entrepreneurs, government, foundations, nonprofits and innovators. The organization has significant experience managing national and local learning cohorts, working with organizations such as The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the United Negro College Fund, Walmart, American Council on Education and the ECMC Foundation. Learn more:

About Ascendium Education Group: Ascendium Education Group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach the education and career goals that matter to them. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees, certificates and workforce training programs, with an emphasis on first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color and veterans. Ascendium’s work identifies, validates and expands best practices to promote large-scale change at the institutional, system and state levels, with the intention of elevating opportunity for all. For more information, visit

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