A Three-Step Guide to Rural Community College-Workforce Partnerships

August 31, 2022

By our count, there are approximately 350 rural community colleges across the country, collectively serving nearly one million students. As the labor shortage continues, four-year college enrollment declines, and the threat of a recession looms, these institutions hold enormous potential to meet our nation’s workforce needs through offerings that affordably and equitably equip students for gainful career pathways in local industries.

Strong community college workforce partnerships are essential to the success of these efforts. In “Improving Workforce Outcomes for Rural Community College Students: A how-to guide for rural community college workforce partnerships,” created in partnership with Ascendium, we sought to lay the groundwork for institutions looking to form these partnerships.

Based on six months of rigorous primary and secondary research, the report outlined best practices for community college leaders looking to form cross-sector partnerships at their institutions and a selection of detailed case studies on successful partnerships.

Despite the variation between rural community colleges, our research surfaced three key steps that rural community college leaders must move through in their workforce partnership journeys: Exploring, Structuring, and Operating.  

1. Exploring 

Successful community college-workforce partnerships begin with exploration. From facilitating conversations with students to better understand challenges they face; to engaging potential partners through persistent, tailored outreach; to conducting reviews of publicly-available labor market data and innovative market research, opening a partnership with an in-depth period of exploration can enable rural community college leaders to engage all potential stakeholders in defining clear partnership objectives early in the process, paving the way for success down the road. 

2. Structuring 

After a period of exploration, leaders can collaborate with potential partners to refine the details of their partnership, including governance, staff allocations, program offerings, outcomes measurement, and funding. In the successful partnership examples we studied, this process generally began with the establishment of an external governance structure, wherein functions were distributed across different committees (including executive, management, and operations committees). To help fill governance roles or find new staff, leaders in this stage are encouraged to lean on close relationships in their communities—and even consider sharing staff with partners in order to prepare the partnership for success.

This is also a time where leaders can begin to develop lists of priority outcome metrics, honing in on metrics that both reflect meaningful impact on students and align with funder and policymaker priorities. 

3. Operating 

Once a workforce partnership is operational, the partnership’s design must be continuously refined in order to maximize student success. Rural community college leaders can do this by  developing a data-driven evaluation and monitoring process, with the goal of anticipating challenges in advance. Our research surfaced common issues that arise in rural settings—including student attrition, resource constraints, communication challenges, and limited institutional research capacity—but also revealed several ways that innovative leaders can, through constant refinement of their partnerships, troubleshoot and overcome these challenges.

In the operating stage, rural community college leaders should also proactively reassess their partnership’s financial model and look for additional funding sources (including from employers) on a regular basis. Doing so can help ensure a workforce partnership will achieve long lasting impact and relevance, no matter what changes occur in the short term. In a similar vein, leaders must continuously involve key staff at the college in operating the partnership to maintain their buy-in and align the partnership’s goals with student, college, and industry needs to ensure it remains relevant.

For the 350 rural community colleges across the country, the responsibility to build effective workforce partnerships that enhance student outcomes and support community prosperity has never been more important. Today’s community college leaders have an opportunity to make meaningful progress on challenges we have endeavored to address for decades—income inequality, wealth inequality, economic mobility, and racial disparities. Population emigration, technology barriers, and limited transportation infrastructure are a few of the many challenges rural workforce partnerships face. But rural community college leaders also have tremendous assets at their disposal, including close relationships, convening power, and community pride, as well as their own staff and students. By building on these strengths, adopting best practices, and learning from examples, community college leaders can propel students toward gainful employment and bright futures. 

Download the full report here 

Social Finance is a national impact finance and advisory nonprofit. They work with the public, private, and social sectors to create partnerships and investments that measurably improve lives. Since their founding in 2011, they have mobilized $350 million in new investments designed to help people and communities realize improved outcomes in education, economic mobility, health, and housing.

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