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: College of Eastern Idaho
College of Eastern Idaho (CEI) is Idaho’s newest comprehensive community college. As one of only four community colleges in Idaho, CEI’s service area covers nine counties — rural and remote areas spanning 19,332 square miles, roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The college serves close to 3,000 learners taking credit classes, with fewer than 20 percent of those learners attending full time. CEI also serves as a training hub for local workforce needs and community services. Through interviews and surveys of learners and community members during the BRIDGES Understand phase, CEI learned many people in more rural parts of its service area were not aware of the college’s presence in their communities or the support that it could offer them. As a result, CEI has focused its pilot on building trust, awareness, and connection to opportunities across the region.
Relationships move at the speed of trust.
As a new community college, College of Eastern Idaho sought to broaden their reach into smaller rural subregions, or micro-communities, bringing new training and opportunities into communities that had little access to post-high school educational programs. The optimistic college was met with enthusiasm for their presence, but skepticism about opportunities offered in their communities. In Idaho, counties may vote to officially join their predetermined community college district. Being part of the district means citizens pay an additional tax to support the college’s efforts in their communities, so it was critical that CEI had community buy-in. Previous attempts to expand the school’s reach were challenging. With BRIDGES, CEI intentionally sought to deeply understand the people and the needs in these micro-communities and focused on building community trust.
During their Understand phase, CEI sought to deeply listen to the community and involve them in the design process and chose to focus on the town of Driggs. The team hosted a gallery walk, in the Teton Valley Business Center, and invited those in the community to help them as they began ideating on possible opportunities to bring to the area.
CEI learned the community was worried about rising housing costs, finding skilled employees for jobs in construction, and supporting English language learners. As a result of their findings, CEI committed to being visible and present in Teton Valley and the other remote areas of their service region. With a portion of their grant funds, CEI invested in a Jeep and branded it to reflect the rugged nature and terrain of the area. This vehicle is used to increase visibility and connect learners with services on-site in their communities.
Video podcast: CEI’s branded Jeep and more marketing tips
CEI also hosted a two-day Construction Combine in Teton County in April 2022. This event, supported and sponsored by local community members, CEI faculty/staff, and local contractors, attracted over 30 participants.
In fall 2022, CEI offered their first ESL (English as Second Language) course in the Teton Valley and were overwhelmed by the interest from the growing Hispanic community. CEI had to offer additional sections of the course to meet community needs.
In spring 2023, CEI took the Construction Combine to another micro-community within their service region. The Salmon Construction Combine brought together local community groups, including contractors, school personnel, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. The team is continuing to think about how to fund and host other combines focused on different industries that support the economic needs of individual communities.
This is a powerful example of what it can look like when an institution takes time to establish a meaningful connection with their communities. College of Eastern Idaho designed their services with the community and saw real, powerful change because of it. CEI connected local employers with potential employees, and developed relationships that will “serve as a critical economic growth engines for their learners” throughout the region.
Stay committed to the design process.
The CEI team remains committed to building favor and follow-through as they continue to work with all rural and remote communities within their service area. They will continue using human-centered design to reach the micro-communities around them, which inspired the college to join the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine as a part of Cohort 3.
Listen to communities.
CEI has been previously unsuccessful in their attempts to expand into other satellite areas. In Teton Valley, they listened to that community, they gained its trust, and they designed with community members.
Push existing solutions with creative applications.
Construction combines were a successful strategy for connecting construction workers with employers. But for these communities, construction isn’t always the need of the smaller communities CEI partnered with. CEI took the successful model of the construction combine and started expanding into other fields. Driggs, for example, is one of the small rural communities in CEI’s service area and may not seem a likely candidate for IT combines and pathways to work. CEI, however, knows this is one of the few areas that has fiber optic cable running through it, and IT makes a lot of sense for this small area.
Co-design with the community.
CEI made sure that the communities they are serving were part of their design process and seen as equal partners in increasing the economic mobility of the area. They built community buy-in into their new programs by bringing hands-on training and learning opportunities directly to their remote and rural service areas. These opportunities reflected the needs of the community and presented an opportunity to invite community members to see the collaboration and the impact in-person.
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: