In light of those articles, as well as the growing skills gaps and the significant number of unfilled middle-skills jobs, I would like to make five simple suggestions for expanding postsecondary education in rural America.
1. Make it attractive (show that it counts) — If we want more rural high school students and adults to pursue postsecondary education opportunities, we must promote both the professional and personal opportunities afforded through postsecondary education.We must sell the product aggressively, letting families and students know that postsecondary education offers significant financial rewards for students who want to stay close to home as well as those looking for a way onto the national and global employment stage.
2. Make it easy — For families with limited college experience, pursuing any type of postsecondary education often seems intimidating and complex. To overcome this hurdle, we should do two things. First, we should make it possible for students to begin their postsecondary education while in high school. This places students in a familiar, non-threatening environment and increases their chances of initial success. It allows them to take advantage of their existing support systems. Second, we need to remove the barrier created by the unfamiliar and intimidating college application/registration/enrollment processes. To encourage rural student participation, these processes should be simplified to make taking a first college course as easy as buying a book on Amazon.
3. Make it affordable — Rural America is price-sensitive. As a result, it’s important to provide postsecondary learning opportunities that are truly affordable. I suggest a goal of offering every rural student in America one year of college credit (30 hours) for less than $1000, and 2 years (60 hours) less than $2,000, all-inclusive! This means no extra fees or materials costs.
4. Make it relevant and meaningful — It’s not too difficult to get people excited about getting a better job or making more money (at least initially). Once students begin the hard work of postsecondary education, however, it’s easy to lose sight of the benefits or how what they are studying applies to their current situation or interests. To increase participation in secondary education in rural America, we will need to provide courses and curricula that address issues such as relevance, local applications, and experiential mastery. Our goal is to provide constant reminders of the value and impact of their studies.
5. Make it sustainable — In addition to persuading more rural high school students and adults to take their first postsecondary courses, we must also build effective bridges and pathways to keep the journey going. This means creating and promoting bridges between high schools, local/regional businesses, and rural education institutions. It also means creating effective pathways (academic and business) for useful degrees and jobs.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.