The new holy grail in recruitment: Rural students

'All of a sudden, rural is on everyone's mind,' says university official

The results of the November election brought to light the forgotten 14% of our country's population that resides in rural areas.

"All of a sudden, rural is on everyone's mind," says Kai A. Schafft, the director of Pennsylvania State University's Center on Rural Education and Communities. Colleges nationwide are making efforts to recruit and enroll rural students, Laura Pappano reports for the New York Times.

Scott McDonald, director of admissions at Texas A&M University, explains that "in terms of diversity, geography is just as important as racial and ethnic."

Rural students bring a unique perspective to campus, argues Adam Sapp, an admissions director at Pomona College. He says rural students have "a different understanding of complicated political and social issues... [offering] one more lens through which to see the problem." 

Also see: Campus diversity is getting more diverse

Rural students also tend to be well-prepared for college. They graduate high school at a rate similar to suburban students and earn scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress that are similar to other students.

And while schools have gone to great lengths to enroll more students from racial and ethnic minorities in recent years, many colleges have historically overlooked underserved rural populations.

In part, this is because colleges face a range of barriers to recruiting rural students.

First, rural communities are more skeptical about the value of college, Pappano writes. Forty-seven percent of urban 18- to-24-year-olds attend college, compared with just 29% of rural young people. And in areas without many jobs for degree holders, going to college means "you will probably not be able to come back," says Schafft.

"People leaving can be almost like a death in the family," explains Cameron Wright, a Yale University freshman from Fleming-Neon, Kentucky.

Second, there are communication barriers. Pappano cites one town where students hang out in a McDonald's parking lot for internet access. Another high school is so remote, sports teams travel up to five hours away for games.

How one program uses text messages to reach out to rural students

Sapp emphasizes that rural students "are not kids who will automatically fall in front of us... We have to do the work."

Organizations like College Possible, College Advising Corps, College Forward, and the College Board are recruiting rural students to college using strategies that include:

  • Sending guides on applying to college and financial aid;
  • Offering online preparation courses for the SAT;
  • Expanding free counseling centers in rural areas; and
  • Offering virtual college advisors.

(Pappano, New York Times, 1/31).

Three lessons in recruitment from a place with "more cows than people"

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