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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

Cultivating Successful Rural Economies:  Benchmark Practices at Community Colleges 

Regional Technology Strategies, Inc.


Rural America is undergoing a major restructuring. A half century ago rural America was mainly agricultural; today only a small percentage of its people are employed full time in farming. From midcentury through the 1980s, industrial plants took flight from cities to rural areas, recruiting people from the farms to work in the new factories; today those same plants are vacating for other countries. Expanding cities, land developers, and Interstate highways encroach on what were once remote and relatively tranquil rural communities. The stimulating pace, job possibilities, and promise of higher salaries in large cities continue to draw young people away from rural areas.

Most rural regions in the United States and other industrialized countries grapple with similar challenges created by declining employment in agriculture, decreasingly competitive industrial labor costs compared to developing countries, and infrastructure shortcomings ranging from poor public transportation to poor connections to the information highway.

The restructuring also creates opportunities for some rural areas. Increasing congestion and pollution in metropolitan areas and the natural resource amenities that rural areas can offer are enticing to some individuals and companies. A rural location is less of a drawback today than in years past for firms whose products are easily transportable, such as software or light electronics, or those that can communicate virtually with colleagues and customers over the internet and telecommunications.

Despite the bright spots, most rural areas will have to continue to depend on building and sustaining the competitiveness of their homegrown industries as well as incubating new ones - all at a time when requirements for advanced technologies and skills are increasing. Economic and technological forces are shifting the factors that afford competitive advantage to higher levels of skills and technology.

In this new environment, many community or technical colleges have risen to the challenge of the new economy and expanded their mission to help rural businessesespecially small- and mid-size enterprisesand labor forces adapt to changing needs. Over the past two decades, community and technical colleges have accumulated a vast storehouse of experience in delivering a spectrum of education and training programs and innovative services to rural companies to help them modernize, become more competitive, and grow. Because two-year colleges are less entrenched in tradition and have stronger regional missions than universities or vocational centers, they are better able to respond quickly to market demands and changing conditions.

Project Description 
In spite of new technological connections, many administrators and faculty at community colleges, as well as other rural economic development leaders, have limited opportunities to learn about new and innovative practices. Most of their information is obtained from relatively parochial sources. Such information often lacks the depth, detail, and objectivity to support improvement and change. Furthermore, those colleges with the most to gain from the experience of others are often the most isolated from information sources, and the least exposed to innovative practices. These are the small, underserved, and rural community colleges.

In 2001, Regional Technology Strategies, Inc. (RTS) published the results of a grant from the USDA's Fund for Rural America to identify benchmark practices at rural community and technical colleges in the U.S. and other countries where internet technology (IT) has made a positive impact on local economies. Many of these practices revolve around meeting IT skill and infrastructure needs. 

This effort has been conducted under the auspices of the Trans-Atlantic Technology and Training Alliance (TA3), a consortium of 34 leading technical colleges in the southern U.S., Europe, and South Africa that supports exchange and innovation in technical education and regional economic development. A guiding rationale behind the TA3 is the valuable opportunity to observe and examine practices outside U.S. borders, and particularly in other advanced industrial economies. A new perspective through a global lens gives colleges access to innovative and successful practices elsewhere that in turn can stimulate innovation at home. For the same reason, this project sought not only successful practices in the United States, but also those undertaken in other nations by institutions most closely resembling community colleges. These include, for example, the Further Education colleges in the UK, the Institutes of Technology in Ireland, the Technical Colleges in Denmark, and the Fachhochschule in Austria.

Data Sources and Profile Guide
A profile of each selected college was generated to support Benchmark Practices. RTS staff and consultants wrote these profiles using information and data from numerous sources including nomination forms and supporting documents; interviews with program administrators, clients and partners; program evaluations; program brochures; websites; and press-coverage articles.

In order to provide a context for each practice, each profile includes a table of socio-economic indicators for the region served by the program. In addition, a community background section is included in the program narratives. The data tables were compiled using United States Census figures with the exception of Service Area data which were provided by each participating institution. The data sources, collected at varying dates, includes Total Population; Median Household Income; Poverty Rate; Unemployment Rate; Minority Population; Rural Population; High School Graduates; and College Graduates. 

Of the 43 Benchmark Practices, 32 were within the United States and 11 were located as far away as Ireland, England, Denmark, Austria, and New Zealand. Of these 32, four have been selected to include in this highlight. For a full copy of the additional sites and programs, please visit www.rtsinc.org/benchmark.

Community Colleges of Colorado - Rural E-Commerce
The Community Colleges of Colorado funded their Rural E-Commerce Initiative to expand technology and education to help address and serve the state's rural digital divide. Organized by the state community college system, a partnership of community colleges, businesses, and individuals is working to improve the technological infrastructure of rural areas and support greater use of the internet and e-commerce among rural residents. Colleges in rural parts of the state are working together through networked collaboratives to offer training to firms on e-commerce use, teaching high school students e-business principles, and supporting careers in technology.

Haywood County Community College - Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative
Considered among the state's most economically distressed areas, Haywood Community College (HCC) in North Carolina has taken major steps to rebuild and provide a stable foundation for regional economic stability. In 1990, HCC initiated the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative as a program to foster and develop the application of entrepreneurial ideas into every aspect of the college's curriculum. That is, it seeks to create entrepreneurs out of all students, regardless of field of study. 

Reedley College - Specialty Vegetable Marketing Tour
Located in the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno County's population has been growing faster than the national average, adding more than 12 percent from 1990 to 1997. Much of the increase came from international migration, especially from Central America and Southeast Asia. Many of the rural people are farmers, and an increasing number of the farmers - over 1,000 - are Asian Americans. These farmers tend to produce a variety of specialty products from their homeland, crops such as daikon, tatsoi, and gai choy, among others. The Specialty Vegetable Marketing Tour targets Southeast Asian farmers and helps them overcome obstacles in bringing their products to market. The tour, conducted once a year, takes Asian farmers to farmers' markets in San Francisco or Los Angeles to learn about wholesaling and retailing. An agriculture instructor from Reedley College leads the tour with the help of an interpreter.

Lakeshore Technical College Non-Traditional Occupations Program
The counties of eastern Wisconsin experienced a tremendous economic revitalization in the last decade. Restoration of historic downtowns, initiation of new development, and expansion of local industry led to a significant decrease in regional unemployment rates and a significant increase in the region's renown. Workforce development and the hiring of skilled workers at affordable wages have presented significant challenges to rural expansion. In response to these challenges, Lakeshore Technical College (LTC) started the Non-Traditional Occupations Program to stimulate awareness and opportunity for women in specific professions typically dominated by males. LTC recruits and offers women apprenticeship programs in several occupations: carpenter, industrial electrician, machinist, millwright, and others. At the close of the workshops, students are encouraged and counseled to continue their education and earn either a one-year technical diploma or a two-year associate degree through the college's mainstream technical programs.

Evaluation Plan and Program Outcomes
As part of the research process, RTS staff classified each Benchmark Practice according to location, program type, and target population. Statistics related to the economic base for each region were also evaluated, and determinations for these classifications were verified by community college staff and by noted references for the programs. 

Each Benchmark Practice Profile includes a brief introduction, program description, and community background information. In greater detail, each profile also includes more specifically designated sections for Outcomes, Strengths, Challenges, and Replicability

Many states, especially in the West and the South, are acutely aware of the economic gulf between their urban and rural populations. Barriers to reliable Internet access and the lower adoption rates of information technology in rural areas are frequently cited as sizeable barriers to economic growth. Many states offer initiatives to support innovations and economic initiatives in rural regions, and the recommendation of the RTS is active consideration of local community colleges as critical levers for economic development. Community colleges are well rooted within rural regions and flexible in their operations and missions. With appropriate resources and partnerships, rural community colleges can be fundamental in bringing to rural economies and populations better access to service, information technology, and a broader capacity to build competitive advantages in their communities. 

The ultimate value of this project lies in the ability of other colleges to learn from and replicate, in part if not in whole, elements of the Benchmark Practices. The researchers hope that by identifying the contexts and environments - economic, natural, structural - that have allowed creativity and success to take root and flourish, other colleges will be able to adopt practices or adapt them to their own institutions.

For more information, contact:
Cynthia Liston
Workforce Development Programs
Regional Technology Strategies, Inc.


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