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June 28, 2024

Bridging the Rural Employment Divide: The Role of Rural Colleges

The rural-urban employment gap in the United States presents significant challenges, particularly for older workers. As the digital economy evolves, many rural communities find themselves at a disadvantage due to limited access to technology, training, and job opportunities. To address this divide, rural colleges are playing a crucial role in reconnecting nontraditional students, including mid-career and older workers, with meaningful employment opportunities.

Mature Student Using Digital Tablet In Adult Education ClassCommunity colleges in rural areas are uniquely positioned to drive workforce development and economic growth. These institutions serve as vital hubs for education, training, and community engagement, offering programs tailored to local industry needs and providing accessible pathways for nontraditional students to acquire new skills or transition careers.

Rural colleges are adapting their curricula to meet the evolving demands of the job market. They offer a range of programs, from short-term certificates to associate degrees, in fields such as healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing. These programs are often designed with input from local employers, ensuring that graduates possess the skills needed in the regional job market.

A survey of college employer partners conducted by the Center for Occupational Research and Development also found that 90% of employers were motivated to work with colleges that had a “positive track record of working with business and industry.”

Key points about rural community colleges:

  • They offer flexible scheduling options like night and online classes to accommodate nontraditional students.
  • Rural colleges often partner with local employers to develop customized training programs.
  • Rural colleges help address worker shortages in fields like healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and information technology.
  • They offer retraining opportunities for displaced workers to transition to new careers.

It’s important to note that Rural economies are also more diverse than some realize. While agriculture dominates some rural economies, agriculture makes up a much smaller share of rural jobs than other industries. Agriculture and mining represent under 10% of jobs in rural areas, with service industries and manufacturing comprising the majority of rural employment (over 70%). Entrepreneurialism and small businesses also play a more central role in rural economies than urban ones.

The impact of these efforts extends beyond individual students. By providing relevant education and training, rural colleges are helping to build a skilled workforce that can attract new businesses and support economic development in their communities. This, in turn, can help to narrow the rural-urban employment divide and create more opportunities for workers of all ages.

Despite their critical role, rural colleges receive only a small fraction of funding. Currently, only 7% of philanthropic funding goes to rural colleges. This underfunding limits their ability to expand programs, update technology, and provide comprehensive support services to students. To truly bridge the rural employment divide, it is essential for philanthropy, government, and businesses to increase their investment in workforce development programs at rural colleges. By directing more resources to these institutions, we can ensure that they have the capacity to offer high-quality education and training that meets the needs of the modern job market.

Feel inspired to help after reading this? To support our efforts to bridge the employment gap in rural communities, please contact Lee-Berkeley at


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