Making higher education dreams a reality for Black rural students

Black students in rural communities face complex hurdles to a college education, including higher-than-average poverty rates. The Virginia College Advising Corps (VCAC) is partnering with colleges and universities across the country to encourage Black rural students to explore their postsecondary opportunities despite these barriers, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. An AmeriCorps program, the VCAC began at the University of Virginia in 2005 to help low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students pursue higher education. 

Nearly two decades later, VCAC is one of 31 university partners in 15 states, such as California, Michigan, and Texas, that make up the national College Advising Corps program, which has helped over 200,000 high school students across the country to enroll in a postsecondary program. Much of VCAC’s efforts have been focused on rural students, especially those from historically marginalized communities.

“Folks like to paint rural populations as white,” Ty McNamee, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Mississippi, tells The Chronicle. “That erases the experience of rural students of color from the conversations.”

Related: Funding shortfalls, enrollment declines threaten rural college students’ access to a growing list of academic disciplines >

Addressing obstacles

Supporting rural students of color can help address postsecondary attainment gaps, which persist even in states with postsecondary educational attainment rates at or above the national average. The percentage of Virginians with a postsecondary credential was 59.3% in 2021, above the national rate of 53.7%, according to a report from Lumina Foundation tracking post-high school educational attainment of Americans ages 25 to 64.

However, most of that growth is concentrated in more populated regions in Northern Virginia, and only 10 out of the state’s 134 counties have postsecondary credential attainment above the statewide average, according to an opinion piece in Cardinal News. Many rural communities, including Sussex County, fall well below that rate.

“We have a generation of parents and grandparents who do not understand the importance and the process of attending college,” Drexel Pierce Jr., principal of Sussex Central High School, a predominately black rural high school in Virginia, tells The Chronicle. “In a rural area our students don’t have access to opportunities others see on a regular basis.”

Rural students overall experience several impediments to pursuing higher education, including pressure work after high school graduation on family farms, factories, and in the service industry, as well as hesitation to leave tight-knit communities. Educators fear those hurdles will become higher for Black rural students, especially with the end of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions.

Meeting students where they are

Outreach to rural students of color remains a priority for VCAC, which has 60 recent college graduates serving as advisors to 63 secondary schools across the Commonwealth and helped 8,000 students enroll in postsecondary institutions in 2021 and 2022. Approximately 40% of students advised by VCAC enroll in community colleges, and less than 4% attend selective colleges, including public flagship institutions, highly selective colleges, and Ivy League institutions, The Chronicle notes. Enrollment in associate degree programs can change the trajectory of the lives of rural students and their families, with an associate degree increasing lifetime earnings over a high school diploma by 25%, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

VCAC advisors often have backgrounds similar to those of the high school students they mentor, enabling those students to better realize their opportunities with the help of someone who knows what they are going through, the program explains. Advisors serve the entire high school they’re paired with, discuss what postsecondary education paths best fit students’ goals, and help them plan their higher education aspirations.

In a post-affirmative action environment, advisors are also helping students write essays that highlight their diverse strengths, along with aiding them in the completion of application material and financial aid forms for trade schools, certification programs, and two- and four-institutions. The support VCAC advisors provide can be invaluable to Black rural students experiencing long-standing barriers to higher education, particularly from their own family. As Jontel Armstead, a Black VCAC advisor tells her mentors, “Just because someone doesn’t believe in you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe in yourself.”

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