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Mining for Skills: Connecting Rural Students with Programs That Facilitate Career Success

November 30, 2017

SRI International
   Kori Hamilton Biagas, REL Appalachia
   Aliya Pilchen, REL Appalachia

Do middle and high school educators know how to connect students with the variety of opportunities for learning and success after high school? Community colleges play an essential role in preparing students to take advantage of local employment opportunities, committing new knowledge and skills to the community, and strengthening the local economy. Secondary and postsecondary educators can work together to ensure that students transition from high school to college and from college to careers with the academic, financial, logistical, and socialemotional preparation to succeed.

To strengthen the connections between secondary schools and community colleges and to support the use of evidence in planning for student transitions, REL Appalachia (REL AP) sponsored and led a unique bridge event on October 24, 2017, in southwest Virginia as part of our partnership with the Virginia Community College System, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The event brought together secondary and postsecondary educators, counselors, administrators, and other professionals who support students on their pathways to college and careers. Mountain Empire, Southwest Virginia, and Wytheville community colleges generously hosted the event, which provided regional data, networking opportunities, and presentations on programs and resources available in the region.

Opening doors for every student

Dr. Deborah Jonas, REL AP director, kicked off the event from Wytheville Community College with an interactive presentation that was broadcast across all three locations. Jonas started the presentation by discussing the need for students to graduate from high school with multiple options: "There is no single, correct pathway — it's important to ensure that we help students make choices that will open doors to opportunities beyond high school." Jonas then provided regional data to frame the importance of postsecondary education and the ways it can improve long-term outcomes for students. For example, the median annual earnings of students who earn an associate's degree are $6,400 more than those of students who complete high school without any additional postsecondary education or training. Even students who have some college experience but do not earn a degree have median annual earnings $4,100 more than those of students who complete high school only.

Median Annual Earnings chart

Source: McFarland, J., Hussar, B., de Brey, C., Snyder, T., Wang, X., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., . . . Hinz, S. (2017).
The Condition of Education 2017 (NCES 2017- 144). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Using interactive online polling and a video conference platform, Jonas engaged with participants at all three sites to gather their perceptions and understanding of the benefits of postsecondary education and training. She then shared data that allowed participants to compare their views with research findings. Participants explored these ideas further by engaging in on-site activities.

Mining for skills with colleagues

Mountain Empire Community College discussions

Participants at Mountain Empire Community College work in small groups to discuss the K–12 coursework and postsecondary programs they would recommend for the example scenario students.

Once the contextual foundation was laid, participants at each site reviewed three written scenarios depicting fictional students in grades 7, 9, and 11, including details about their academic achievement, relevant family economic circumstances and structure, and academic and nonacademic interests. In small groups, the participants collaborated to reflect on their advising approaches and explore college and career pathways for the fictional students. The groups then compared their advised plans of study with the state's recommendations to identify areas of alignment and disconnection. The discussions that arose led to questions about access, resources, and creative programing. Participants were able to share useful tools and resources with one another as well as work together to generate ideas for overcoming common barriers.

Exploring college and career opportunities in the region

Perry Hughes

Perry Hughes, vice president of Workforce Development at Wytheville Community College, presents an overview of the Powerline Worker program.

During the program "lightning round," each college highlighted some of the available academic and support programs, focusing on those relevant to 4 of the 16 VDOE career clusters with job opportunities in southwest Virginia:

  • Education & Training
  • Health Science
  • Information Technology
  • Manufacturing

A total of 12 program introductions were broadcast across the three sites, so all participants could learn about offerings in the region. Each college then addressed participants at its specific site to present more in-depth information about the programs available. This format allowed for participants to ask questions and learn how they could better support students in pursuit of these pathways.

The day ended with time for participants to network and connect with college administrators and colleagues. This enabled the participants to learn more about programs relevant to the needs of their school communities. With support from facilitators, participants engaged in informal conversations with program staff members about how programs meet specific student needs and what next steps to consider to increase the visibility of these programs in schools and school divisions.

Constructing a collaborative learning environment

This bridge event cultivated an environment of teaching, learning, and collaboration in southwest Virginia. Participants explored the critical importance of postsecondary college and career pathways, and were eager to discuss ways to make the research and data actionable for their students and colleagues. After spending the day sharing uses for tools and technology to support career planning and opening up about barriers and opportunities in the region, participants walked away with fresh ideas, renewed energy, and a broader understanding of how the pieces of the college and career pathway structures can work together to open doors for students.