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.
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.Explore