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Rural Matters

Nov 21, 2020

In this final episode of our four-part series, Rural Higher Education: Challenges & Opportunities, Michelle chats with three experts about innovative programs in rural higher education: Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center On Rural Innovation; David Tandberg, senior vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO); and Leslie Daugherty, an education designer at the Education Design Lab. The Lab’s focus is on ensuring that learners’ needs and goals are front and center, using a human centered design approach, She describes the Lab’s  latest project, called BRIDGES, which is conducted in partnership with Ascendium and five rural community colleges, and is dedicated to creating pilot programs for sustainable growth and economic agility for these institutions and their learners. It’s important to talk to  learners and  uncover the “why” behind quantitative  analysis to enable innovative programs to truly succeed and be inclusive, she notes. Tandberg discusses how his organization deploys empirical research to advance policy objectives in higher education in United States. State leaders should broaden their perspective of rural institutions of higher education and view them as “stewards of place,” where they can become key actors in economic and cultural development in rural areas. Dunne talks about how globalization and automation had a disproportionate, detrimental effect on rural areas following the 2008 recession and how his organization is building digital economy ecosystems to deal with this disparity. He also notes that in implementing these critical ecosystems, it was essential that the rural area have an institution of higher education, which could engage in the community, as is happening now in the exciting collaboration between Colby College and the town of Waterville, Maine. To access the Center on Rural Innovation’s report, Higher Ed’s Role in Rural Innovation Ecosystems, visit This episode and the entire Rural Higher Education Series is underwritten by and produced in collaboration with Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit The series is also produced in collaboration with MDRC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research firm committed to finding solutions to some of the most difficult problems facing the nation. Learn more at