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Rural Revival: 3 insights for designing with empathy from Washington State Community College

Washington State Community College is located on the Ohio and West Virginia border in Marietta, Ohio.
The BRIDGES Rural cohort
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This is part of a Transformation Insights series spotlighting innovative community colleges in the BRIDGES Rural initiative at the Education Design Lab.

In 2020, as the world entered the COVID-19 pandemic, five rural colleges committed to a three-year project with the hope of building their capacity and extending their reach further into rural areas.

BRIDGES Rural — an acronym for Building Rural Innovation, Designing Educational Strategies (BRIDGES)— started with a question: How might we strengthen the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities?

With the support of Ascendium Education Group, these institutions engaged in a human-centered design process with the Education Design Lab to design and pilot innovative pathways, community partnerships, and learner-focused support services.

SPOTLIGHT: Washington State Community College

Washington State Community College (WSCC) is a two-year college in the mid-Ohio Valley located on the Ohio and West Virginia border in Marietta, Ohio. Serving over 2,500 students, WSCC offers more than 40 certificate and associate degree programs to help learners transition from high school to college, as well as those impacted by the ever-changing economy. The college has a large number of students who are part of Ohio’s College Credit Plus program, which provides free college courses to high school students.

Taking care of caretaker learners

Parents and caretakers who enroll in college are risking their family’s time and money in hopes of a better future for both themselves and those they are supporting. In addition to the challenges new majority learners face, an unexpected bill, a broken down vehicle, missing a deadline due to an unexpected shift change, or the multitude of other reasons learners find themselves stopping out.

Learners who are also caretakers often find themselves having to stop everything to tend to their loved ones, which can derail a learner’s academic future. These learners, especially, need empathy, flexibility, and to feel a sense of belonging and community with other caretakers. WSCC committed their work to designing with and for these determined learners. The team at WSCC designed Strive for Five with a focus on learners interested in manufacturing. Learners were assigned a support coach and were asked to check in with them (virtually or in-person) and received a $50 gas card each time they met with their coach. WSCC did not see the volume of student engagement that they had hoped, and iterated on the design of their pilot to increase learner engagement — a true testament to their commitment to solving for this specific demographic of learners.

In spring 2023, WSCC once again iterated on their initial idea and launched the Evening EdVantage program. The new design built upon the previous work of supporting learners also serving as caregivers by adding in-demand, shorter-term pathways in which learners could earn a short-term credential within eight to 16 weeks.

To further support these learners enrolling in these programs, WSCC made sure the learners qualified
for free tuition in their first two courses and ensured learners had a consistent course schedule on Tuesday or Thursday evenings. In addition, learners had access to free childcare and were guaranteed an evening/online path to completion.

Washington State Community College continues listening and growing in their understanding of the needs of parent learners. Designing with empathy and intentionally focusing on a sense of belonging empowers these learners and, by extension, their families, making WSCC a college where parent learners belong.

Transformation insights

Human-centered design is apolitical.

New education policies are in the news every day. In the middle of the bipartisan struggle, WSCC focused not on politics, but instead, on the real lived experiences of learners in their community.

Engaging small businesses is critical.

46.8% of the workforce in the United States is in small businesses. While small businesses may not have the capacity to enter into paid internships with a school or even offer many employment opportunities, it is important to find a way to center these voices. WSCC continued to engage their local employers in the process. One employer expressed a concern on the length of an upskilling initiative, so WSCC faculty worked with the employer to create the Four Fridays to a Credential program. The current workers come to WSCC and earn a credential in advanced manufacturing in four weeks. This credential can then be articulated into credit for those who are interested in continuing at WSCC.

What you pay attention to grows!

Historically, WSCC struggled to align with a diverse group of community business owners and employers. At times it felt that the same employer partners were the only voice in the room and WSCC
recognized the need to become more intentional in their employer outreach. They started redesigning their communication and partnership strategies and engaged senior leadership and their elected board
members in the prioritization of monthly new employer outreach campaigns that brought a new group of employers to the table.

Looking ahead

As the Lab continues our work with rural postsecondary leaders, we are excited to test the approaches from this project with the other rural and remote communities, as well as learning how to create a data culture that supports decision making and sustainability.

In spring 2022, the Rural Together community of practice came together as a result of the BRIDGES work and we are excited to continue co-leading that space with rural postsecondary practitioners, highlighting the innovative work happening throughout all rural communities.

Download the full brief: Rural Revival: BRIDGES Rural College Transformation Insights

Read transformation insights from each college:

BRIDGES Rural 2023 Institution Impact Showcase

The showcase featured insights from the two-year design process and next steps for BRIDGES Rural community colleges, including Washington State Community College.