What rural students want out of college

As rural students seek to migrate from their communities, colleges are finding ways to welcome them.

More rural students are pursing four-year degrees—so many that the population of some rural counties, such as Mahaska County, Iowa, has decreased, writes Dante Chinni for the Wall Street Journal. After they graduate, many rural students move to cities such as Chicago or New York—and never look back.

While college attainment rates have increased for the United States overall by 15 percentage points since 2000, college attainment in rural areas has only increased by seven percentage points in rural areas, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Also see: 4 key takeaways from the latest Harvard Enrollment Study

Many rural students see college as more of a ticket out of the middle of nowhere than a ticket to the middle class, writes Chinni. And the result is a concentration of college-educated individuals in urban areas, which may be the reason why companies like Cargill have had trouble recruiting bachelor's degrees holders for engineering positions in Eddyville, Iowa.

"When you are trying to attract high-school and college grads, they want to be close to entertainment, to night life," says Craig Ambrose, a facilities manager at Cargill.

But this also presents an opportunity for colleges to articulate their value proposition for rural students. As Adam Sapp, an admissions director at Pomona College told the New York Times in February, rural students "are not kids who will automatically fall in front of us... We have to do the work."

To recruit rural students, colleges have been trying a range of strategies that include:

  • Sending guides about how to apply for college admission and financial aid;
  • Offering online prep courses for the SAT;
  • Building free counseling centers in rural areas; and
  • Offering virtual college advisors.

Some colleges are also helping their urban and suburban students understand their peers who come from rural areas. For example, the book Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance is becoming a popular choice for college summer reading lists (Chinni, Wall Street Journal, 6/27; Roll, Inside Higher Ed, 6/28).

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