Looking to the road to recovery from this moment, the time is now to invest in high-quality job training and skilling opportunities for residents of rural communities to prepare for the workforce of the future.

Unfortunately, investment has been lacking. As outlined in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, philanthropy has a blind spot in serving economically distressed, rural communities — a blind spot exacerbated by a lack of philanthropic investment and a set of assets and challenges not well understood across all grantmaking organizations. Estimates found only 7% of philanthropic grantmaking dollars end up in rural communities.

Rural communities are complex, diverse and changing rapidly. Nearly 20% of Americans live in a rural community. More than 22% of people living in rural communities are people of color. This growing population of Black, Latinx and Native American populations represent over 10 million people.

As populations have changed, the urban-rural employment gap has grown. Ten years after the Great Recession, urban areas had 10% more jobs than they did prior to the recession, while rural communities had 4% less jobs. Sixteen percent of rural residents experience poverty (compared to 12% of urban residents) and on average, remain in poverty comparatively longer than their urban counterparts. Despite completing high school at comparable rates, 42% of urban learners have obtained an associate’s degree or higher compared to 29% of rural learners.

Rural America is home to many wide-ranging and evolving communities. However, a narrative of rural decline and division ignores the innovation and diversity present in rural spaces across the country.

Ascendium Education Group began investing in rural learners in 2019. We support efforts that can help the field better understand rural learners and postsecondary providers, strengthen those providers, and improve collaboration and partnership to support rural learners through their postsecondary experience and entry into the workforce.

In our first year of operating this grantmaking portfolio, we’ve learned much about supporting rural learners, and know we have ample opportunity to continue to learn and improve the way we partner with leaders in small towns across the country. Collectively, these highlighted investments are intended to help learners from low-income backgrounds prepare and enter the workforce in their communities.

  • Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is supporting 11 communities in the Rural Works initiative, a national network of workforce intermediaries committed to modernizing and redeveloping pathways from postsecondary education and training to employment.
  • Center on Rural Innovation is researching how to build a more inclusive tech workforce in rural America, exploring how to create skilling pipelines, localizing outsourced tech jobs and leveraging the power of remote work in rural areas.
  • Achieving the Dream is building a cohort of six rural community colleges going through large-scale institutional change to prepare and increase the number of low-income learners that graduate and enter the digital economy (also being supported by Workforce Matters members JP Morgan Chase and Cognizant).
  • Education Design Lab is executing a three-year design challenge with an inaugural cohort of five institutions to develop and pilot new solutions to answer the question: “How might we improve the ability of rural community colleges to be a critical engine of growth in their local communities?”

Location is just one of the many identities that impact how a learner approaches education and their career. Like race, age, gender, family status and many other identities, location can be a powerful lens for consideration when strategically supporting initiatives designed to serve students of color, workers underrepresented in the workforce, and learners restarting their educational journeys.

If you want to explore supporting rural communities in your work, there’s a lot to consider. While we’re just a year into our rural grantmaking journey, here are three things we’ve learned through our partners:

  • Center rural expertise, voice and experience in the design and implementation of potential partnerships. While creating our rural grantmaking strategy, we spoke with over 100 rural practitioners, funders, post-secondary providers and students. Having lived rural experience inform our strategy allows us to support responsive partnerships oriented towards action and community needs.
  • Leverage relationship-building opportunities with regional and local funders who have cultivated trust and expertise with the communities they serve. Supporting West Virginia’s Climb would not be possible without the creativity and expertise of the Philanthropy West Virginia Education Affinity Group. Funders will be able to amplify impact and embed sustainability by funding and supporting rural leaders together.
  • Empower partnerships that leverage assets of rural communities. While there are challenges facing rural communities, there are ample assets that rural postsecondary providers and workforce training entities bring to the table — strong social connections, resilient and engaged residents, agile institutions with the ability to enact change quickly and cross-sector partnerships that can catalyze strong results for learners.

If you’d like to learn more, share your reactions or partner in this work, reach out to the Ascendium Rural team.


Danielle Vetter is a Senior Program Officer with Ascendium Education Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach the education and career goals that matter to them. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees, certificates and workforce training programs, with an emphasis on first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color and veterans. Ascendium's work identifies, validates and expands best practices to promote large-scale change at the institutional, system and state levels, with the intention of elevating opportunity for all. For more information, visit https://www.ascendiumphilanthropy.org.

To learn more about the data highlighted in this piece, check out the following resources: