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A Playbook for Promoting Prosperity in Rural Places

Two officials in rural Appalachia unveil new development plans in front of local press and community members.

A Playbook for Promoting Prosperity in Rural Places

Since November 2016, there has been heightened national interest in and action on the education and economic issues inhibiting prosperity in rural places.

Since November 2016, there has been heightened national interest in and action on the education and economic issues inhibiting prosperity in rural places. Changing the prosperity narrative requires bully pulpit leadership to focus attention on the issue, set the stage for action, and pave the way for additional funding streams to take the necessary actions. To get there, it requires change-producing leadership at the local, state, and regional levels. This is where you come in.

The priorities for promoting prosperity and the action strategies that work for rural communities have been identified. It’s up to you to implement. Help is at hand. Two reports distributed in early 2018 offer a framework and specific actions that can help rural communities begin to address barriers and promote prosperity.

The Reports

The president’s Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (Rural Prosperity) identified the priority issues embedded in five indicators of prosperity: E-Connectivity, Quality of Life, Rural Workforce, Technology, and Economic Development. For each indicator the Task Force provided objectives and recommended actions, the bulk of which require policy or legislative action at the national level.

IEL’s Opening Doors, Changing Futures report documented results achieved by the Appalachian Higher Education Network (AHE Network) from 2011 to 2016. The AHE Network is an Appalachian Regional Commission initiative housed and managed at IEL to increase education attainment and to build a stronger workforce in Appalachia. The report provided strategic actions to be taken by communities, institutions, and families. The majority of recommended actions required changes in organizational and institutional practices.

Where to Start: Focus on Education and Workforce

A May 2018 report from the American Enterprise Institute asserted Every State’s Economic Future Lies with School Reform. For this and other reasons, we believe there are two indicators from the Prosperity Report on which local, state, and regional leaders can and must take immediate action: Quality of Life and Supporting a Rural Workforce. The Prosperity Report’s assertion about the importance of E-connectivity to prosperity in rural places cannot be denied, but the specific issues we suggest as a starting point are to Advance Education and Support a Rural Workforce. These are more amenable to local and state actions, and have greater, more immediate impact.

Prosperity requires jobs and people trained and qualified to fill them, yet many rural areas suffer from undereducated and ill-prepared workforces.  For example, Appalachia is home to a population that is 42 percent rural with a high school graduation rate within one percentage point to the national average.  Alas, it is also home to a workforce in which 53.9 percent of persons ages 25-64 hold only a high school diploma. An undereducated workforce makes it difficult for existing employers to find workers and makes it difficult to attract new businesses. In short, such a workforce stands in the way of increased prosperity. We must connect the systems that deliver education more closely with workforce training and development services and vice versa. 

Work Together

A primary theme resonating across both reports is the need to work collaboratively to support and produce increased opportunities and outcomes. Working together sounds like a simple solution, right? Wrong. Organizations don’t collaborate, the people in them do.  But, outdated organizational charts and organizational structures developed for a different time and time-honored practices make it difficult or impossible for people to connect and envision strategies to serve constituents through collaboration.

Listed below is a synthesis of the pertinent strategic actions contained in the reports. Viewed together, they offer guidance on both the WHAT and HOW of promoting prosperity by advancing education and supporting a rural workforce. That is, they provide guidance on what issues need to be addressed as well as guidance on how to address them. The recommended strategic actions form a playbook to help leaders as they endeavor to coalesce their constituents and their communities and to develop action plans in support of increased prosperity.

Recommended Strategic Actions

To Advance Education

The students least likely to take advantage of post-high school education and training opportunities are low-income students from rural high schools. Changing this fact cannot be accomplished by any one individual, agency, organization, institution, or governance system.  As reported in The New York Times, “…Communities that are making it share a key attribute: They’ve created diverse adaptive coalitions…“ It takes collective efforts and collaborative actions, including: 

  • Identifying all of the community’s education and workforce assets and harnessing them to support and promote increased opportunity for all students. Schools, two- and four-year colleges, and other training institutions are unique and durable assets that need to work hand-in-hand with local businesses to support education and training success.
  • Creating public-private partnerships to complete the E-connection of all rural pre-K through grade 12 and community and technical colleges to maximize the use of digital learning, especially the deployment of curricula for STEM.
  • Aligning high school curricula with the expectations of two- and four- year colleges and universities and career-related industry training programs.
  • Developing partnerships between education institutions and workforce development agencies with business and industry to provide training and job-related opportunities such as apprenticeships and internships.
  • Developing or amending institutional policies and practices to encourage, stimulate, and support collaboration and partnerships.
  • Supporting innovation and improvement initiatives shown to promote postsecondary education access and success, such as dual credit programming, A.P. courses, etc.

To Support a Rural Workforce

“…[Rural] students often have little understanding of how the economy works outside their communities…  They… aren’t learning about the mainstream economy by osmosis from friends and neighbors. They need explicit teaching: about the difference between dead-end jobs and multi-step careers” (Hill 2017).

We can support a rural workforce by:

  • Identifying existing job demands, skillset gaps, and community needs and providing educational and career guidance linked to local economic needs.
  • Assisting local businesses in the expansion of apprenticeship programs.
  • Creating a one-stop shop for better customer service to all constituents (veterans, adults in need of retraining, etc.) and connecting, streamlining, and eliminating duplication across the agencies.
  • Improving access to education and training programs and developing a single online platform to improve access to information about federal, state, and local programs and other job-related resources.

Promoting prosperity in rural places requires leadership with a mindset and capacity to declare, “We are in this together, and we will cast aside our old ways of going it alone.”  The ten recommended actions from the Prosperity Report and Opening Doors Report can help.

Further Reading

Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2017. Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity,

Opening Doors, Changing Futures: The Appalachian Higher Education Network, 2011-2016. Institute for Educational Leadership, 2017. Elizabeth L. Hale with Dr. Helen Janc Malone and Sarah McCann,

Every State’s Economic Future Lies with School Reform. American Enterprise Institute, 2018. Eric A. Hanushek,

The Institute for Educational Leadership,

The Appalachian Regional Commission,

The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2012-2016 American Community Survey Chartbook. Appalachian Regional Commission, 2018. Kelvin Pollard & Linda A. Jacobson,

Friedman, Thomas L. “A Road Trip Through Rusting and Rising America.” The New York Times, 24 May 2017,

Hill, Paul. “A Better Future for Rural Communities Starts at the Schoolhouse.” EducationNext, 11 Jan. 2017,