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 Community Colleges Help Bridge Rural Economic Divide 

by Lynn Barnett
Community College Times
February 5, 2002
“Rural America is in trouble, and you are part of its hope.” 

With those words, Karl Stauber, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, challenged 200 education and community leaders from distressed rural communities across the nation.

They had convened in Carlsbad, N.M., for the final Leadership Institute of the Rural Community College Initiative (RCCI) sponsored by the Ford Foundation.  New Mexico State University-Carlsbad hosted the event at its Pecos River Conference Center. 

The Northwest Area Foundation’s philanthropic efforts help communities reduce poverty in the eight states of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Great Plains.

Since 1994, the Ford Foundation has invested $20 million in RCCI to help community colleges develop their impoverished regions by improving access to higher education and enhancing economic development opportunities.  The 24 colleges are located in the southwest, Appalachia, the deep south and on northern plains tribal reservations, some of the most economically distressed areas of the United States. The hallmarks of RCCI are strategic planning, inclusion, team building, community development and careful attention to local culture.

Stauber warned that persistently poor and sparsely populated rural communities run the risk of continual decline or extinction. Of the 30 poorest counties in the United States, 29 are rural. 

Since only 10 percent of rural Americans now live on farms or ranches, rural needs and policy issues are no longer only agricultural. To avoid creating “new Appalachias,” Stauber said, policymakers must avoid the “one size fits all” approach and shift from a market sector focus such as agriculture or forestry to a focus on communities.  He emphasized the danger of ignoring historical factors of racism and classism that affect community and economic viability.

“Communities without a competitive advantage will not prosper,” Stauber said.  He noted that nations and communities that prosper constantly look for new competitive advantages rather than protect old ones but only if social and human capital are developed at the same time. Without help, many rural communities will become “permanent sites of festering poverty.”

Citing the importance to any community of a strong middle class, Stauber predicted that if the middle class cannot survive, rural America soon will consist of only the very poor and the very rich. 

The 24 community and tribal colleges affiliated with the RCCI have been working to address these issues.  

“If you don’t do it, who will?” Stauber challenged the RCCI delegates.  He urged community colleges to become leaders in policy development and on-the-ground implementation.

Stauber’s comments were well received by the group. The situation he described and challenges he offered were in line with the RCCI colleges’ charge from the Ford Foundation.

“We have to continue [doing the access and economic development work] because the viability of our community is at stake.  We can’t afford to quit,” said James Mitchell, president of Wallace Community College-Selma in Alabama.

Speaking of the importance of community partnerships, president Sigfredo Maestas of Northern New Mexico Community College said, “The quality of our college is the vital element our community needs. We don’t want to be the only show in town anymore.”

According to Ron McNeil, president of Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, the success of RCCI’s work on the Standing Rock Reservation means that more people are onboard and willing to work together. 

Ron Eller, professor of history at the University of Kentucky and a member of the American Association of Community Colleges’ research team that assessed the national RCCI program, credited the initiative with moving people “from victims to empowered leaders.”  He noted that RCCI brought new people to the table in each community and redefined the relationship between college and community. 

According to Cyrus Driver, program officer at the Ford Foundation, RCCI showed that community colleges are places that catalyze community development in new ways that build on trust and inclusiveness—both “precondition” elements necessary for turning around distressed communities. 

RCCI validated the Ford Foundation’s initial assumptions about community colleges being key institutions for access and economic development. “Community colleges are where social capital can be built,” he said. “The work has just begun.”

Driver announced at the meeting that the foundation will support future RCCI work through two Rural Development Centers supported by the Department of Agriculture.  They are the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development at Iowa State University and the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. The centers, with their stable federal-funding base, will be able to help expand work that the RCCI colleges began. According to Bo Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center, “There is now a high level of interest within federal agencies for this kind of relationship-building.”

“Rural America needs what we have discovered,” concluded David Dodson, president of MDC Inc., the Ford Foundation’s managing partner for RCCI.
Lynn Barnett is AACC vice president of academic, student and community development.
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