A Rural Pipeline Everyone Can Support

Three hours north of Maine’s largest city, Franklin County leaders envisioned a thriving community in which working families could attain higher education levels that improved their family’s economic status [RuFES Grow It Goal 5]. Like their counterparts in many rural places, Franklin County families faced three major barriers to getting the post-secondary education they need to get ahead: distance, cost and culture.

Percent of rural adults with no higher education - find your state's % here.Determined to remove those barriers, community leaders came together in 2005 to see what they could do. The results of their discussions: Franklin County Community College Network (FCCCN) – an independent organization tasked with connecting the dots among residents, social service organizations, public education institutions, community development corporations, foundations and employers. With a start-up grant, the network hired a 10-hour-a-week liaison to coordinate partners and increase access to college education and training programs. Even the county’s movie theater pitched in – screening a network advertisement, free of charge.

In places like Franklin County, where 30,000 residents are scattered across 1,789 square miles, getting to class can be a hurdle for many residents. FCCCN teamed up with Central Maine Community College and other community entities to bring over 166 classes and other training and certification programs to ten different sites in the county, reaching students from even the most remote parts of the area. By bringing classes closer to potential students, FCCCN has helped more residents enroll and filled classes for community colleges and other providers.

Next came cost. Classes had to be more affordable for low-income students, so FCCCN worked with the Maine Community Foundation to secure scholarships for Franklin County students. On average, students requesting financial help received a scholarship of $464 per class, totaling $72,832 since the program began.

Employees get ready for the workforce.Finally and equally challenging is the cultural barrier. In 2000, 56% of residents in Franklin County had no college coursework or degree. FCCCN knew, in light of a shifting economy, that helping a new generation of residents prioritize and pursue new skills, certifications and degrees would be a prerequisite to county residents securing great careers. Inspiring students to seek higher education – especially when it may not have been necessary or available to parents and other community members– would take patience and ingenuity.

Deliberately engaging multiple generations of a family in training and educational programs has begun to build a culture of lifelong learning in Franklin County. Betty Gensel, FCCCN’s liaison, believes this emphasis on culture and engaging younger residents has been essential: “We’ve helped to make higher education a more typical experience, by getting the first generation, say 20-year-olds, involved; then we find these kids inspire their moms and dads – and soon we have two generations taking classes.” Additionally, a close relationship with adult education programs in the area has help residents get ready for the new college courses and spread the word about the great opportunity. According to the latest Census figures, FCCCN’s work to change the county’s culture is panning out. The percent of residents with no college education in Franklin County has dropped 20% since 2000.

Gensel says that keeping access, cost and culture in mind is what helps the network “stay focused and realize that it takes all of us to address those barriers. No one organization can do it alone.” As an independent entity, rather than a project housed within another organization, FCCCN can focus on its broader goal of sustainable careers while being the connective tissue between the network’s diverse – but aligned – interests and organizations. FCCCN contributes the “special sauce” that identifies bridge-building opportunities and then mobilizes the network member best suited to the opportunity. This “networked” approach capitalizes on each network member’s diverse expertise and relationships.

The network’s commitment to bringing opportunities within reach has made it possible for 1,614 students to enroll in a wide range of college-level courses. Eighty percent of those students are working toward degrees. Additionally, 430 residents have participated in at least one of the 18 job certification programs FCCCN has offered. And new programs are always in the works. FCCCN is working with a local employer to explore the possibility of creating an HVAC training program for residents. While it is difficult to say exactly how many, hundreds of residents have been connected to jobs in their local communities thanks to the network’s connections with business leaders and service providers throughout the county.

What three pieces of advice can FCCCN offer a rural community seeking to connect education, work and location to help rural families get ahead?

  1. Make the most of your local knowledge and relationships – inside and outside the network. This is FCCCN’s “special sauce.” Just opening a community college “storefront” on Main Street would not fill classes or match courses with local career opportunities. FCCCN members reach out personally to find students and teachers and match opportunities with programs. Betty Gensel explains, “Before the community college cancels a course due to low enrollment or inability to find an instructor, the registrar will call me. By mobilizing FCCCN, we are often able to fill and even teach courses locally. And, if we aren’t able to fill the course, we might find out that the timing or location is not a match with the needs of residents. Next time, our knowledge of residents and businesses will be that much better and the course will succeed.”
  2. Know when to step up and when to step back. At times, FCCCN has had to step back to ensure that businesses and residents are truly involved and invested in a program’s success. FCCCN tried unsuccessfully a few times to launch a Computer-Aided Drafting and Design [CADD] training program, but finally, this spring, the timing for students and employers was right. By offering a hybrid of day and night classes, the program was able to meet the needs of adult and high school students, local employers and employees, and the program itself. The course has really taken off.
  3. Don’t settle for jobs; be intentionally focused on career building. Every opportunity must be viewed as a “movement” toward the next thing: “Our training does not just teach a student to use a wrench. By combining both specific skills – using a wrench – with transferable skills like customer service we help individuals move past entry level positions into management, while developing a resilient workforce that will help our community thrive, now and in the future.”
To learn more about the work of FCCCN, visit FranklinNetwork.org. Working to bring job and educational opportunities to rural families in your region? These RuFES Action Ideas can help! 
RuFES is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group.
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