How to make college accessible to students from rural communities

How to make college accessible to students from rural communities
© Greg Nash

Rural America has taken center stage in public discourse. A political shorthand for an alienated underclass, “rural” has commanded media attention, with stories on the impact of the opioid crisis, the decline in manufacturing, and tariff wars on residents of villages and towns across the country. Recently, concern about this often “invisible” demographic has intensified in higher education, with colleges and universities seeking to increase the enrollment of rural students as part of diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at ethnic and racial minorities, low-income, first generation undergraduates, and military veterans.

Identifying, recruiting, enrolling, and retaining rural students requires affirmative action. Initiatives include busing rising juniors and seniors and their families to on-campus admissions events; following up with text messages; granting college credit for Advanced Placement and online courses; collaborating with farm families, 4-H, FFA, rural schools associations, Upward Bound (a free college preparatory program for low-income, first generation students, funded by the United States Department of Education), and community and regional development institutes. After making sure to factor in the actual financial circumstances of families who own land but have limited liquid assets, colleges and universities have, where appropriate, provided scholarship packages that cover tuition, room, and board.

Most important, perhaps, success depends on convincing rural students and their parents that an undergraduate degree is, indeed, a “game changer.” Current research documents the dimensions of the challenge. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 71 percent of rural white men, compared to 82 percent of their urban and suburban counterparts, believe a bachelor’s degree provides essential workplace skills. College recruiters, alas, still spend far more time in communities where annual family income exceeds $100,000 than in areas where it’s $70,000 or less. Drive-by communities remain a correlate to fly-over states.

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For these reasons, while 62 percent of urban and 67 percent of suburban high school graduates attend college, only 59 percent of their rural peers matriculate in a two-year or four-year institution of higher education. Rural students enroll at lower rates in subsequent years as well: 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds from rural areas enroll in college, compared to nearly 50 percent of urbanites and suburbanites. This despite the fact that rural high school students perform better on the National Assessment of Education Progress and graduate at higher rates.  Rural students are capable of excelling at college — when we get them in the door.

Reaching rural students early can be helpful. Several institutions, including Cornell, where we work, now fund opportunities for academically talented and ambitious high school students from economically disadvantaged rural families to enroll in on-campus summer “bridge to college” programs, at which they can gauge their interest in and aptitude for a rigorous undergraduate education. When the students complete the summer program (in which academic credit is granted), college administrators communicate with high school guidance counselors about their performance, identity gaps in preparation, and recommend next steps.  They send information as well to admissions professionals at their own institutions, who then decide whether to invite the summer college student to apply to matriculate as an undergraduate.

Even when all the costs of a summer college experience are covered, rural families often resist. Impediments to enrollment of low-income rural students include: the cost of gas and public transportation; the loss of income from a summer job; the need to care for a younger sibling; parents’ fear that if their children go off to college, they will not return home. These concerns are best addressed by high school teachers and guidance counselors — and by in-person sessions offered in the community by administrators responsible for the summer program.

Daunting as the challenges are, the experience of Logan Roberts from Groton, N.Y., reminds us that rural initiatives are well worth the effort. A rising senior, Logan had not considered applying to an Ivy League school, despite outstanding grades and standardized test scores. He worried that he would be “surrounded by people who are millionaires, or whose parents live in Europe and Dubai,” he told us; his classmates “would all be geniuses… and I would feel like a sheep among wolves.” But Logan’s stint at Cornell’s Summer College Program convinced him that he was “capable of working just as hard as they were.” Logan was admitted to Yale University and went on to intern on Capitol Hill.

Our colleges and universities do well, it seems clear, when they emulate enlightened farmers’ treatment of land as a renewable resource. And a comprehensive, sustainable, and enduring rural schools’ initiative is in the best tradition of American values of equal opportunity for all.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies, and Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at Cornell University. Jim Schechter is Director of Precollege Studies in the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at Cornell University.