Why colleges are working to win over skeptical rural students

As skepticism about the value of a college degree grows, institutions double down on recruiting rural students, Douglas Belkin writes for Wall Street Journal.

Only 31% of people who live in rural areas believe college is worth the cost, compared with 52% of urban residents, according to recent survey by Gallup. The college attendance gap between urban and rural residents has more than doubled since 1980, Belkin reports.

To bridge the widening gap between rural America and elite universities, higher education leaders are targeting rural and often politically conservative students, Belkin writes.

Recruiting from rural areas provides students the opportunity to engage with people whose political views may differ from their own, says Lynn Morton, the president of Warren Wilson College.

Many rural students also tend to be well-prepared for college, Belkin notes. However, high-achieving rural students often attend a local community college or state school, according to a 2013 report from Stanford University.

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, Belkin writes. A 2009 report by Princeton University found that wealthy white applicants were three times as likely to be admitted as a poor white applicant with similar qualifications.  

Low-income white students have long been overlooked by selective colleges, says Bob Freund, the director of a nonprofit that helps rural students land admission at Pennsylvania colleges.

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, Belkin writes. Many rural students also come from communities where few jobs require a bachelor's degree, Belkin adds.

Second, there are communication barriers. High-achieving rural students can be difficult to find if they live in remote locations or have difficulty accessing the internet, says Greg Roberts, an admission director at the University of Virginia.

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

Rural schools also tend to have strong placement pipelines with community colleges and vocational programs, says Nicole Hurd, chief executive of College Advising Corps. For guidance counselors at rural high schools, elite colleges don't seem like a realistic option for most students, Hurd adds.

To bridge the gap, colleges are establishing recruitment programs to reach underserved rural populations.

Swarthmore College established a program this year that funds campus visits for prospective students from rural areas. Princeton recently expanded its ROTC class and reinstated a transfer program that supports low-income students, Belkin adds. Previously, leadership roles in organizations popular in rural communities, like ROTC, were associated with "60 or 65%" lower admissions odds," according to the aforementioned 2009 Princeton study.

For many schools, efforts to recruit more rural students have been successful. Carleton College, for example, bumped their rural student population up 4 percentage points since 2013, partly thanks to the college's rural student scholarship, Belkin writes.

When rural students do arrive on campus, many experience a culture shock. To ease the transition, colleges are welcoming these students to support groups that serve their first-generation classmates, Belkin adds (Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 12/4).

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

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