Two of the most unlikely places in rural America to find economic success are the Iron Range of Minnesota and south Arkansas. But there it is – and community colleges are at the center of the action.

There’s an unfortunate if not unavoidable tendency for talk about rural communities to veer at times into hopelessness. State legislatures and Congress don’t seem to put rural concerns on the stove, much less on the front burner. Too many rural communities are seeing an out migration of people. And with fewer people, it’s just harder to build an economy.

So on and so on, and after a while, it begins to sound more less like a discussion and more like whining — which is why it was so invigorating to hear some success stories the other day coming from the Iron Range in Minnesota and the lower half of Arkansas. Now, there are hard places to make success all across Yonder, but the mining regions of northeast Minnesota and the Mississippi Delta are just plain tough spots to make progress. But, so what?

Angela Duran described how the Southern Good Faith Fund was working with community colleges and employers in several Arkansas towns to build people’s assets and abilities. (Duran is the president of the Good Faith Fund.) Nearly half the residents of the region are within spitting distance of poverty, Duran said. (She was speaking in Bastrop, Texas, at a meeting of the Texas Rural Innovators Forum.) So the Good Faith Fund, a non-profit subsidiary of a group of south Arkansas banks, has worked to build the earning power of those with few skills. Community colleges built a special curriculum that sped students through the school they missed as kids.

In two semesters, grown-ups with the skills of eighth or ninth graders are being brought up to the level of high school graduates. The program wasn’t successful just some of the time, Duran said. Eight out of ten students were finishing the equivalent of four or five years of high school in just two semesters. “It’s pretty exciting stuff,” Duran said.

No kidding. Equally invigorating was Joe Sertich’s description of what was happening in the Minnesota Iron Range. Less than a decade ago, the Iron range was about to be left for dead. Mines were closing and nothing was taking their place. “We saw businesses going up for sale and property values going down,” Sertich said. Sertich was the president of a community college then and eventually, he was put in charge of five community colleges in the region. The schools are in Hibbing, Ely, Grand Rapids, International Falls and Virginia/Eveleth, all in the far northeast corner of the state. The towns and colleges figured the only way to work on the economy was both cooperatively and as a region.

The colleges became the engines in a regional economic development effort. You can go to the web site of True North, the name of the initiative. Like Arkansas, True North has worked on building the skills and assets of residents. The community colleges have reached into the high schools and are providing kids with technical education.

True North got some macro economic help, as China’s demand for steel and timber has reinvigorated the region. Sertich said there are now $5 billion worth of industrial investments on the drawing boards. Now there’s hope, and even a plant closing can be seen as something to be taken advantage of. When an electronics firm went out of business, spilling 200 people out of work, Sertich was ready with schooling. “We see this as an opportunity,” Sertich said of the plant closing. “We’re going to move those people from $12 an hour jobs to $22 an hour jobs.”

What was interesting in the stories was how important community colleges have become to rural areas. That’s a switch that’s taken place slowly over the last few decades. Today, there are nearly 600 community colleges serving rural areas. Enrollment at these schools increased 42 percent between 2000 and 2006. Community colleges are far more important to rural communities than they are to the cities.

Community colleges have become leaders in changing local economies. And they’ve enriched the culture. Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas, holds a playwriting festival once a year. (Arthur Miller invited some folks he met in Independence to spend Thanksgiving with him.) The Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez, Mississippi holds its Literary and Cinema Celebration. Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands hosts a mountain music festival every June.
Hard work, good times and no whining allowed.