This post was originally published by WestEd’s Center for Economic Mobility.

By Dr. Alexandria M. Wright and Dr. Laura Lara-Brady

In this blog post, we explain the Adult Education on-ramps to postsecondary opportunities, the opportunity cost of education, and the support needed for adult learners in rural communities.

For many, economic mobility, or the concept of increasing one’s economic status over time, goes hand-in-hand with the “American Dream”—the idea that anyone, no matter their background, wealth, race, or geographical location, can achieve their goals and improve their economic status by working hard and educating themselves. But to achieve those dreams, people in all communities need to be connected to equitable and accessible on-ramps to economic mobility.

Postsecondary education programs, including community colleges, career and technical education, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and 4-year universities and beyond, are crucial levers for achieving economic mobility. This is especially the case for rural communities, which face unique opportunities and challenges in accessing the education and training that results in achieving economic mobility. Research shows that rural students graduate from high school at a higher rate (90%) than students from cities (82%) or suburbs (89%). But rural communities often have limited access to education and employment opportunities, and they have limited resources for essentials like adequate housing or childcare—all possible contributors to the fact that only about 55 percent of rural students directly enroll in college. In the big picture, this means that a higher percentage of rural adults over age 25 hold a high school degree as their highest level of educational attainment compared with adults in cities and suburban areas.

The Center for Economic Mobility partners with communities to connect educational institutions with employers and enhance existing curricula that reflect high-demand skills in careers that provide family-sustaining wages and meet the adult learner where they are.

There are three main ways the Center for Economic Mobility connects educational institutions and employers to support this work:

  • creating accessible entry points to postsecondary education for adults living in rural communities
  • highlighting the importance of career pathways that lead to family-sustaining wages using earn-while-you-learn models
  • ensuring sustainability for training and wraparound services

These are all key ingredients of pathways to economic mobility for rural communities.

Strengthening On-Ramps: Increasing Access to Education and Training Programs

The unique conditions of rural communities require particular coordination to achieve student success. Evidence-based research has demonstrated that engaging Adult Education Integrated Education & Training (IET) programs—which combine occupational skills training with Adult Education services—provides learners with a refresher on basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills in a contextualized format alongside industry credentials that can propel adult learners into new career pathways. Enforcing competency in basic skills readily supports student success, giving adult learners a boost as they continue their educational and career journeys. Adult Education pathways like these offer an easy-to-access on-ramp to short-term education and training that meets rural adult learners where they are while increasing their value in the labor market through the attainment of industry credentials in fields such as digital technology, manufacturing, and supply chain and transportation. This reduces the opportunity cost of education by decreasing the time spent in the classroom and offering adult learners an immediate gain in the labor market while they begin their career pathway.

While Adult Education is federally funded through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, the funding does not support development of new IET programming. Seeking small amounts of funding that can support the development of IET programming can provide an exponential return on investment as adult learners move through training and into good jobs that support economic mobility. By connecting adult learners to living wage employment through these programs, rural communities can expect to see positive ripples throughout their local economy as more people experience economic mobility.

Addressing the Opportunity Cost of Education for Adult Learners in Rural Communities

While the modern era has placed increasing pressure on financial resources for everyone, economic opportunity is simply less available in rural communities due mainly to  limited commerce, reduced transit corridors, and sparse capital for investment. This presents a difficult choice for adult learners: Get an education or go to work. In this sense, education and income become a zero-sum game. One way to address the increasing cost of education, particularly for adult learners in rural communities, is to highlight opportunities that allow adult learners to work while they earn school credit.

The Center for Economic Mobility has created a dashboard that shows the relationship between educational pathways, skills, and jobs using region-specific labor market data that can help educators and adult learners explore which pathways are likely to lead to family-sustaining jobs in their respective regions. Practitioners can use this information to develop resources for adult learners about opportunities for further study and employment and to support conversations with faculty and counselors about how institutions’ academic options align with regional opportunities.

Additionally, earn-while-you-learn opportunities, such as Registered Apprenticeship Programs and Work Experience or On-the-Job-Training, provide rural learner-workers with access to living wage employment while concurrently supporting continued education. These opportunities are funded and operated through local workforce systems, which help address income barriers for adult learners while simultaneously supporting workers along their educational and career paths. These investments will inevitably assist adult learners as they move up the career ladder and obtain higher wages.

Engaging with the Business Services team at local America’s Job Centers, typically branded as the local state employment office, will help connect learner-workers to these various programs. Supported by federally funded mandates to provide employer incentives, Business Services can also assist with direct job placement for qualified workers. Harnessing these public resources is essential in rural communities that often lack resources due to low population densities.

Meeting the Basic Needs of Adult Learners in Rural Communities

Even with accessible on-ramps to securing short-term, industry-credentialed training and paid work experience, students in rural communities often encounter additional barriers that prevent them from taking advantage of these opportunities. Adult learners encounter many barriers on their educational journeys. One of the most common obstacles is lack of access to such basic needs and services such as reliable transportation, affordable childcare, healthy food, affordable health care, and work clothing.

The federal workforce system provides access to a variety of support services for qualified individuals through the Job Seeker Services side of the local America’s Job Center. Support services include immediate access to cash assistance through TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), food benefits from SNAP, transportation support, and childcare support to name a few. The Center for Economic Mobility has supported rural communities by understanding the unique needs of adult learners and then working with colleges, adult schools, workforce systems, and community-based organizations to align their offerings and support the unique needs of adult learners.

Ensuring that student advisors are aware of Job Seeker Services will help learner-workers have even greater access to earn-while-you-learn opportunities and assistance with direct job placement. Access to these crucial services can be elusive for the average citizen without the proper support.

At its core, rural workforce development can be far more complicated than similar initiatives in metropolitan areas. The staff at the Center for Economic Mobility understand this. By implementing some of the actions noted above, rural educational institutions can help learner-workers truly live the dream rather than being resigned to sit on the sidelines in a marginalized space that dictates it can only be a dream. The Center for Economic Mobility works with partners to create accessible entry points, scale effective models, and connect the dots to support adult learners’ basic needs, rural educational institutions can help learner-workers live their version of the “American Dream” and reach their fullest potential.

The Center for Economic Mobility specializes in instructional design for Adult Education IET programming, offers subject matter expertise in bridging education and workforce systems, and provides technical assistance to educational institutions and systems. Our technical assistance includes regional pathway mapping to good jobs that targets high-impact career pathways aligned with local workforce system priority industries. Let’s connect as we build a future where every student’s dream has a chance to become a living, breathing, paycheck-earning reality.

Dr. Alexandria Wright is a Senior Research Associate for Economic, Labor Market & Educational Data at WestEd. She specializes in strategic planning to build strong economies in rural America and American Indian Nations and in the design of key performance indicators across economic, social, and environmental dimensions of a community.

Dr. Laura Lara-Brady is a Senior Project Manager at WestEd. Her degree and background focus on building student and community-centered higher education systems in which marginalized communities can thrive. She leads a number of statewide and national projects centered on large initiatives such as Guided Pathways and the alignment of K–12 and higher education systems with regional needs. Her work includes engaging partners and organizations to amplify and align their efforts and create meaningful and sustainable systemic change that supports the needs of marginalized communities. Dr. Laura Lara-Brady was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico.