The number of students attending college has dropped every year since 2012, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The only higher-education sector bucking the trend (albeit slightly) is four-year public institutions. The causes include a drop in the birth rate, increased workforce participation among young people and new challenges in recruiting international students, have left colleges and universities facing an enrollment crisis.
Experts predict colleges won’t see an upswing until at least 2023. For now, colleges are turning their sights to a traditionally underserved population: America’s rural students.
Why recruit rural students?
College administrators have realized that recruiting rural students can add diversity to college campuses. “Rural Americans possess cultural wealth, diversity of perspective, and other attributes that can enrich the enterprise of higher education,” the Pell Institute observes. They also tend to be more conservative politically, which may help alleviate the public perception that universities are uniformly liberal institutions. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, 52 percent of public colleges and 28 percent of private colleges said they were stepping up recruitment of rural students.
Focusing recruitment on rural areas also helps close the overall college attainment gap. Inequity in higher education stems not only from factors such as race and family income but also where young people live, particularly during childhood, The Pell Institute reports. “While some attention focuses on urban areas, rural communities are often neglected in conversations about how to improve postsecondary educational opportunity and outcomes.”
The challenges of recruiting rural students
The many obstacles facing prospective college students from rural areas can be distilled into three broad areas: finances, communication and transportation.
- Rural students don’t always perceive college as valuable. Only 31 percent of people who live in rural areas believe college is worth the cost, according to a 2017 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. In areas where few people have postsecondary degrees and most jobs don’t require a degree, parents may be skeptical of the value of college.
- Rural schools tend to funnel students toward community colleges or vocational schools. Overworked guidance counselors don’t have the time or inclination to suggest students consider different choices, such as private colleges far from home. That’s why the nonprofit College Advising Corps sends recent college graduates to serve as student advisers in low-income, often rural, schools.
- They may be less prepared for college. Rural high schools typically offer fewer rigorous college preparatory courses such as Advanced Placement, which can inhibit students’ enrollment and college completion. Even high-performing students often choose less competitive colleges or local community colleges.
- Remote areas present communication challenges. Colleges’ digital recruitment and marketing tools aren’t much use in areas where students have limited Internet access and phone service. The College Advising Corps has tried sending personalized texts to remind students about college application deadlines, but rural students often use temporary “burner” phones, or max out their data plan.
- It’s tough for rural students to travel to far-off campuses. When you live hundreds of miles from the nearest airport or train station, visiting colleges seems impossible.
Strategies for recruiting rural college students
To attract more rural students to campus, higher-ed institutions must first let them know that they’re wanted. In addition to the counseling work undertaken by the College Advising Corps, the College Board has been reaching out to students in rural schools by sending them guides on applying to college, connecting them with virtual college advisers, and promoting college prep tools like Khan Academy. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success consists of more than 130 colleges that have joined forces to simplify college application processes and reach out to underserved students.
Not only are colleges visiting rural schools, but they’re inviting students to visit them. Swarthmore College recently established a program, Discover Swarthmore, that offers all-expenses paid overnight campus visits for high-achieving college seniors. Texas A&M provides bus transportation to bring prospective students from West Texas and New Mexico to on-campus recruitment events.
What about financial aid? Many institutions are embracing “promise programs” — financial aid programs that include a requirement to live in a geographic area. An example is the VanGuarantee program at Vance-Granville Community College, which offers free community college, plus fees and books, to residents of four North Carolina counties.
The last piece is ensuring rural students feel welcomed. “There are some solutions we can work toward during this divisive period to better understand rural, first-generation, and politically conservative students, who fear they will be marginalized or misunderstood by their professors,” Jonathan Tyler Baker writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education. What made the difference for Baker, he says, was his connection with empathetic, compassionate professors who genuinely wanted to understand his experience as a student from rust-belt Ohio.