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A woman carrying a backpack walks outside on a college campus

College and career pathways can help rural residents identify available opportunities in their community for them to earn a higher paying job and plan for the future.

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Less than one-third (31 percent) of adults who live in nonmetro areas have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree, 14 percentage points behind those in metro areas. However, college and career pathways can help guide learners to earning the credential and landing the job they want.

A March report from Jobs for the Future identifies three key themes in developing pathways in rural communities and how education and workforce leaders can better serve young people living in these areas.

What is a pathway?

Pathways have grown in popularity to help students in rural areas find quality jobs and attend postsecondary institutions by interlocking education to careers and joining stakeholders along the student lifecycle, including K-12, postsecondary and workforce development fields.

These strategies are place-based, with a focus on regional labor markets, making this work more challenging in rural communities that are geographically isolated or lack resources. However, investing in local assets can support inclusive economic development and stop the brain drain issue prevalent in rural locations.

Local Strength

One of the assets of rural communities is the deep connections between neighbors and a history of collaboration within the area. Building a college pathway requires sustained effort and engagement across sectors, so creating a shared vision is critical to meet goals and is a more natural fit for rural areas.

“Tight-knit, collaborative rural communities have an advantage over large cities, which often struggle with siloed or disjointed programming across K-12, higher education and workforce development,” according to the report.

After establishing a vision, leaders should unify resources to make a more navigable system for young people and their parents. It can also address a common challenge among remote communities related to a lack of infrastructure.

For higher education, this means evaluating existing partnerships with local high schools, career advising opportunities, work-based learning partnerships and other levers.

The report also recommends creating formal agreements between groups, such as a memorandum of understanding to outline expectations and contributions among stakeholders.

Inclusive Economic Development

Rural residents are often disadvantaged by limited job opportunities, which places them in roles where they are underemployed or facing low pay and high turnover. Racial disparities also exist in rural communities, with Black, Latino and Native American people as well as women of all races overrepresented in low-wage jobs.

“While pathways alone do not solve the problems of job quality and occupational segregation, they can be part of a multipronged approach to addressing them,” according to the report. “Pathways provide learners and workers with career navigation supports and improve access to the education required to secure employment in high-wage industries.”

In addition to supporting existing and future industry opportunities in the area, college leaders should ensure young people are developing skills that prepare them for high-wage jobs with greater potential longevity. Two examples:

  • Manufacturing has entry-level positions that young people can hold while being trained in more advanced education, such as engineering or computer science, allowing learners to apply skills in a hands-on manner with a clear path for advancement.
  • Healthcare pathways, another similar need in rural communities with potential high earnings for young people, should likewise incorporate career navigation supports to guide learners through future education and advancement.

Pathways should also address systemic barriers related to race, socioeconomic status and gender by investing in early talent development.

Another consideration for rural communities is the focus on small- and medium-sized local businesses who employ a significant number of workers and provide goods and services to the community. Career exploration within colleges and universities can showcase existing business and foster entrepreneurship among learners, which also benefits the local economy.

Remote Opportunities

While many rural communities are geographically distant from education and employment opportunities, there are a variety of ways to plug in students and employees online to advance their communities without physical relocation.

“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the growth of remote work, which presents an opportunity for rural communities to retain community members, including young people who have the skills for success in a remote environment,” according to the report.

One consideration for higher education leaders is connectivity for remote learners, who may lack internet access, so investing in resources to get students online is critical.

Dual-enrollment can boost rural students’ confidence and interest in post-secondary education, as well as save them money and time in their degree progression, but physical distance from an institution still limits learners. Therefore, colleges and universities should prioritize online dual enrollment within a pathway that guides students through the courses they need to reach their educational goals.

Data-driven advising can also help address a skepticism around higher education sometimes held in rural communities to connect education and career and earnings potential based on credentials.

Work-based learning experiences can also happen in a remote setting, so long as the student has a laptop, internet connection and workspace. Colleges should help connect students to remote internships (or micro-internships) to help them develop professional networks, build social capital and gain relevant work experiences.

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