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Rural Revival: 4 earn + learn insights from Zane State College

Zane State College has served Zanesville, Ohio, and the mid-Ohio Valley for over 50 years.
The BRIDGES Rural cohort

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: Zane State College

Zane State College (ZSC) has served Zanesville, Ohio, and the mid-Ohio Valley for over 50 years. With a total enrollment of just over 2,000, Zane State serves a large number of students through Ohio’s College Credit Plus program, which provides free college courses to high school students.

Relationships + gas cards

In the decade before BRIDGES, several local factories closed, leaving a motivated workforce with little local chance to earn a living wage. In 2022, the community learned Intel would be building three new factories in the area. When large factories move into rural spaces, the landscape changes dramatically. Not only will there be an increase in jobs through Intel, but a growing demand for more teachers, police, and healthcare workers. With this tremendous change on the horizon, Zane State’s work with the Lab has prepared them to design new pathways into employment.

Through the Lab’s work with BRIDGES, teams have learned rural learners truly love where they live. In rural communities, there are deep generational roots that reach back to the founding of the country. People in rural communities have a deep love of place, and they are committed to staying in the area to grow their own families. The communities Zane State serves love their roots and want to be able to stay local.

During their Understand phase, ZSC learned that the two perceived obstacles to enrolling were (1) work obligations and (2) a misunderstanding on how current programs aligned to the type of careers they were seeking. Students, ZSC employees, and community members all shared concerns about poverty, lack of local job opportunities, increases in substance use and abuse, and an aging infrastructure that may not withstand the dramatic changes of a pandemic world.

The team designed the Earn + Learn prototype, which coupled college classes and employment to create a realistic pathway to a degree that absorbed work and employment obligations into the education experience.

Knowing that rural learners face transportation obstacles, Zane State intentionally thought about the student who may not be able to afford the drive to an internship site. Students were offered a $50 gas card each week to offset travel expenses. At the end of the semester, all 12 students completed their practicum, and as of fall 2023, each student had either found full-time employment or had decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Not only did Zane State increase completion, they also added internship sites that in the past felt inaccessible due to distance and transportation costs.

The team quickly moved to start implementing the same Earn + Learn model in other fields. They were able to co-design a certificate for industrial manufacturing and make a mid-year catalog change, which was not a practice previously used at ZSC. The new personnel and passion for the work sparked boundary-pushing creativity. Due to the shortage of workers following COVID, the employer had to pull out of the agreement because the cost of losing employee production during the program hours was too great for them to participate, and employers would not make their production numbers.

The challenge of losing a key employer did not stop the team’s commitment to solving their problem. Knowing that industrial maintenance would be in demand, Zane State switched gears and recruited new students into the program to help the employers as well as provide assistance for the current employees to enroll in the certificate program.

The team also designed an Earn + Learn model in Phlebotomy. This work is the result of many conversations about fair wages and retention, as well as the partnership formed from Zane State’s first-ever healthcare combine. Over 50 students from across the region came together to learn about the multiple careers that are available at hospitals. As a result of the combine, ZSC has seen an increase in applications and admissions in all healthcare pathways and a significant increase in pay for those learners completing a Phlebotomy certificate.

Transformation insights

Fall in love with the problem.
Zane State’s commitment to solving their problem kept them focused when obstacles arose. They continued working toward creating local opportunities for employment. When a major partner had to withdraw from the project because of an employee shortage, the team’s momentum didn’t slow down — it just shifted to other areas.

Start small.
ZSC chose the accounting program for the Earn + Learn pilot because the department had established work-based learning embedded in the curriculum and connections with local accounting firms. The incredible successes of this cohort led to buy-in with the community and within the institution. “We picked accounting purposefully because it was a small cohort and some of them already had paid internships that paid really well.”

True change work is personal.
When ZSC engaged in the human-centered design process, it forces them to listen to people most proximate to the problem and work with that population to craft a solution. Designers need to check their own biases, reframe failure as learning, and be open and trusting with their design partners. That kind of work impacts a person’s approach to solving problems, and the team at ZSC has changed how they think about their work.

Success is determined by relationships.
Relationships move at the speed of trust, and the relationships that ZSC built with communities and employers fueled their design. They reflected that the key to their progress was, “Our relationships with students, our relationships with businesses, our relationships with our own faculty and staff, relationships with the community.”

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 Zane State College.