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: Finger Lakes Community College
Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) serves diverse communities within the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In addition to their main Canandaigua campus, FLCC provides studying and training opportunities at three campus centers. In total, FLCC enrolls an average of 5,000 learners each year. As they learned more about the many different rural micro-communities in their service region, the FLCC team saw the need to connect more deeply with people in these areas. With these goals in mind, the team designed GRIT, a 16-week, place-based certificate program focused on providing competency-based training for in-demand, middle-skills jobs.
Carving out access for rural spaces
Billboards. Radio. TV. Email. Newspapers. College advertisements exist in all of these spaces as a main avenue for recruitment. But, all of these tools become less accessible in rural areas. FLCC has a service area of 3,000 square miles. Here, billboards are for trees. Radio signals get lost. The Internet is less reliable.
When many institutions were facing low enrollment numbers in the semester following Covid, FLCC sought to understand the new challenges learners faced. Using insights from their surveys and gallery walk, the FLCC team designed two prototypes: Learn Anywhere and Who Is My Person? Through Who Is My Person?, learners had access to one person to help them with anything they may need during their program. Learn Anywhere encouraged students that whether in person, online, or hybrid, FLCC’s programs had the flexibility to meet their needs. This shift toward flexible modality and a consistent person to support the learner demonstrated FLCC’s commitment to making their institutions learner-centered.
FLCC’s Growing Rural Infrastructure Together (GRIT) model launched in January 2022 with a cohort of new learners and incumbent workers. The model was co-designed to address a shortage of credentialed workers in the growing advanced manufacturing industry. The cohort met in three different locations throughout the area, and also included a completely remote option. The instructor taught remotely and each GRIT site was gifted with technologies that ensured the learners could access the content and the instructor from a space closer to where they live and work.
In addition, the participants received their own coach, who attended class with one of the place-based cohorts every week, to help them through the program. The pilot was so successful that FLCC has implemented the coaching model for every program throughout the entirety of the institution.
When launching GRIT with the BRIDGES project, FLCC’s outreach intentionally focused on micro-communities. Instead of hoping for more home campus engagements from students, FLCC’s goal was to engage students in many localized centers across their area. The GRIT team defined “success” with a deep understanding of what rural community college means. It isn’t a classroom full of students, it is a few students who are connected through a network in spaces where opportunities did not exist before.
FLCC remains focused on those small reaches, individualized to the community and the learner, as a powerful mode of economic mobility in their most rural areas. They continue to design GRIT programs to meet industry demand in the area.
It isn’t most students. It is each student.
FLCC took a highly individualized approach throughout the program. During the recruitment phase, FLCC conducted information sessions on career exploration in a variety of formats (e.g., one-on-one, Webex, in-person meet and greets, etc.). This personalized approach had a strong result: three-quarters of learners who attended an information session registered for the program.
Remote options and localized centers are crucial for rural micro-communities.
The average learner reported a commute of 28.5 minutes. But during winter months, what was once a 20-minute drive to campus becomes a two-hour drive through snow, hills, wind, and ice. Learners talked about the snow and the roads being in poor condition. Local centers reduced that commute time and provided learners with a small community to connect with.
Keep asking for feedback.
FLCC is committed to getting feedback from students. This was an early insight for the team that stuck. When the team heard students felt the material was rushed, the team implemented time with professors outside of class and created space to provide feedback in class. These small tweaks add up to a powerful learner experience.
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: