Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Creating local colleges, or adjusting focus of existing ones, can boost rural economies

Walla Walla Community College started an enology and viticulture
program in 2000 to help train students and boost the local economy. 
Getting an institution of higher learning to set up shop locally is one way to bolster struggling rural economies, Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. That's easier said than done. Randy Smith, president and director of the Rural Community College Alliance, told Semuels, “It’s quite an amazing undertaking in today’s age of starting a brand new college from scratch.” He said earning accreditation is difficult. Some colleges expand a new satellite campus, but he said “that doesn’t have the impact a main campus is going to have."

Rural towns that have a college have seen success, Semuels writes. "The unemployment rate in Kearney, Neb., home to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, for example, is 2.5 percent, compared to the state’s overall rate of 3.4 percent. In rural Corvallis, Ore., the home of Oregon State University, the unemployment rate is 3 percent, while surrounding rural counties such as Lincoln have a rate as high as 4.8 percent."

Josh Wyner, executive director of the non-profit College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, said more common than trying to start a new college is for existing institutions "to change themselves and become economic engines that revive struggling areas," Semuels writes.

For example, after automation reduced farming jobs and lumber mills closed in the 1990s in southeast Washington, Walla Walla Community College "started an enology and viticulture program, and began training local students in the art of winemaking," Semuels writes. "The number of local wineries has since grown from 16 to more than 170, and the local industry has spurred the creation of other industries, including wine distribution and a hospitality sector." Anticipating that health-care and renewable energy would grow the college also tripled the size of its nursing program to train more health-care workers and started a program training technicians for wind turbines.

When a local economic-development organization told leaders at Neosho Community College in Chanute, Kan., that aerospace companies in Wichita were interested in expanding in Chanute, the school developed a program to train workers, Semuels writes. In 2012, aftter a 55,000-square-foot manufacturing facility owned by Spirit AeroSystems opened in Chanute. "And last year Orizon Aerostructures said it was planning to buy a 72,000-square-foot building in Chanute and hire up to 150 people there."

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