Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: The full deep-dive into our visit to Montana
02: Roadside Attractions: Where rural colleges beat urban ones.

01: Postcards

There is an emergency brewing in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana … and in rural communities across the country.

Workforces nationwide have been stretched beyond recognition in the wake of the pandemic. The sudden move toward telework shifted housing and labor markets, fostered an affordability crisis, and increased the need (and demand) for hands-on labor in health care, construction, and other critical fields.

This week, Open Campus published a special report with the Montana Free Press digging into the work rural colleges in Montana are doing to address those deep-set challenges, and the obstacles they have faced along the way.

Here is an excerpt from that reporting (edited slightly for context). You can read the full article at Open Campus and the Montana Free Press:

Amid rapid change, colleges are struggling to adapt fast enough to meet their communities’ needs. 

Take the path to becoming a medical assistant. With an aging population — nearly a third of Montanans will be over 60 by 2030 — comes a huge demand for health services.

With so many positions empty, rural patients are experiencing longer waits for care, assuming care is available at all,” says Rebecca Conroy, the chief transformational officer at Bitterroot Health, a regional hospital in western Montana that is currently struggling to fill about 20 open medical assistant jobs.

Employers like Conroy are the canaries in the coal mine of a growing talent shortage across the country. So smoothing the route to jobs like medical assisting has become a key focus of Montana’s government and educational infrastructure.

The state’s colleges recently partnered with the national nonprofit Education Design Lab to interview Conroy and local business leaders statewide about how they might create new educational opportunities.

One such example: a set of micro-credentials to allow people to build key skills in shorter courses over time, which they hope will better prepare students, while making learning more accessible and getting them into the workforce faster.

A key part of the Design Lab’s work is identifying what skills employers need most. The conversations helped Conroy articulate her changing needs. She began talking less and less about the skills she had originally outlined in the job description, like medical expertise and pharmaceutical knowledge. 

Instead, she spoke about staff members having to calm angry patients frustrated by their care or having to wait weeks to see overbooked providers.

Some days, Conroy said, medical assistants spend more than half their shift taking phone calls from suicidal patients, trying to talk them down from the brink and get them the help they need. 

De-escalation, Conroy realized, is the No. 1 job requirement these days. And she needs colleges to start teaching that.

“It’s becoming a skill set that all of our staff need,” Conroy said. “People are simply not their best selves since COVID.” 

Rooting out, and then meeting, specific and surprising education needs like those are exactly what Montana and other states hope more flexible, skills-based education systems can achieve. 

Minzi Thomas, a policy expert with the Education Design Lab, suggested that the lab could add de-escalation and suicide prevention programming into curricula the lab and Montana colleges are collaboratively developing.

Lindsay Flather, a working mother and nursing student, says such training would definitely benefit students like her. She took a four-week fast-track course at Bitterroot College last year that allowed her to start working as a certified nursing assistant at Bitterroot Health. 

“I had not received much training in school or at work on how to handle those situations: how to act, what not to say or ask about,” Flather says. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to the point where we need it, but it would be great to have more education on that.” 

In addition to talking with employers, the state is asking students for feedback about what they need and what gets in their way. 

At a recent discussion at Missoula College, one student said she was struggling to juggle three jobs while studying communications so she can help run her grandmother’s swing-set business.

Another said pre-college placement tests are a daunting requirement. “Finding a good-paying job that respects a student’s schedule is challenging,” another added.

When Flather was asked how employers could help, she thought about how much her life has shifted since she graduated from the University of Colorado in 2009, just two years after the iPhone came out. 

In an accelerating world, employers had to know that change might be the only thing that students like her could plan on. “

Providing more resources and ongoing training is super huge, especially the way technology in any career is advancing, constantly,” she said.

I encourage you to read the rest of the piece, which delves into the experiences of students and state leaders as they try to create a more adaptable system.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • The economic return of rural education. In this Inside Higher Ed piece, Sara Weissman writes about a recent Boston College report that suggests rural colleges and universities are more affordable and accessible, and have shorter times to earning a degree, than their urban and suburban peers.
  • From rural brain drain to brain gain? There are a number of ways that higher ed can contribute to the economic vitality of rural America, according to this analysis by Alcino Donadel for University Business. His take provides an interesting twists on the perception in some rural communities that colleges and universities contribute to brain drain rather than bringing significant benefits to them.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.