Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit aiming to improve community college student success, launched a three-year initiative this week to improve workforce development at rural schools.
Backed with nearly $3.4 million in funding, the organization will work with an inaugural cohort of seven colleges on institutional reforms, narrowing equity gaps and providing personalized support to students.
The initiative joins other efforts to strengthen rural schools in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The initiative means to spur the colleges to launch projects that will help all of their students, said Karen Stout, the nonprofit's president and CEO. Participating institutions, for instance, may change their admissions or advising practices.
"Colleges are not taking on small, boutique, siloed, disconnected interventions that only touch a few students and that never really get to the structural core of the college," she said of the program.
Achieving the Dream will help the colleges determine what projects they want to undertake. Later, the schools will examine whether those interventions improved student success metrics such as completion rates, Stout said.
The nonprofit selected the colleges based on their leaders' commitment to building a culture focused on student success and whether they served high shares of low-income students or students of color, she said.
Although most of the schools are community colleges, the organization also tapped a two-year institution that's part of a university system. The seven institutions are:
Berkshire Community College, in Massachusetts.
Clovis Community College, in New Mexico.
Columbia-Greene Community College, in New York.
Halifax Community College, in North Carolina.
Louisiana State University Eunice.
Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.
The cohort members will be able to help each other achieve their goals, said Ellen Kennedy, president of Berkshire. "There's not a lot of competition between community colleges for the same students, so there's a lot of willingness to share things that are successful," she said. "Our finding out what's working in New Mexico or in some of the other regions these colleges are in will be really helpful in exploring whether they'd work in Berkshire County."
The pandemic underscored the need to invest in rural areas, particularly to help people participate in the digital economy, Stout said.
It has also highlighted the extent to which some rural students lack reliable internet access. Conditions for some may improve, however. The Federal Communications Commision in December awarded $9.2 billion in contracts to provide high-speed internet to some 5 million rural homes and businesses.
Achieving the Dream's initiative follows another recent effort to strengthen rural schools. Education Design Lab late last year selected five rural community colleges to create new postsecondary education pathways. The nonprofit plans to publish a report on rural learners' needs and highlight models that bring their communities more economic mobility.