Putting college within reach for rural students

Students in rural communities have high school graduation rates on par with their urban and suburban peers, but they are much less likely to attend college. Distance from postsecondary institutions is often a barrier: many rural communities are ‘education deserts,’ where the closest postsecondary institution is at least an hour away. Writing for The Hechinger Report, Alyssa Ratledge, research assistant at the nonprofit education and social policy research organization MDRC, says that to ensure rural students have the support they need to make college a real possibility, colleges need to offer specialized advising and financial assistance to help rural students enroll in college and complete their programs.

Related: ‘We are barrier-removers’: College access program meets rural students where they are >

Unique factors shaping rural students’ trajectory

In the United States, 33 million people across 1,716 counties live in education deserts. For rural students, transportation costs, homesickness, seasonal jobs like harvesting or farming, and family responsibilities can make it difficult for them to attend college. Those obstacles often loom largest for students from low-income households or those who would be the first in their families to attend college.

Rural students may also hear skepticism about the value of a college education from friends and family in communities where college degrees haven’t historically been required for employment or where attending college has meant leaving the community behind.

Offering comprehensive support

To overcome these barriers, rural students “need a little extra help both adjusting to and staying in school,” Ratledge writes, pointing to programs such as Montana 10—a new Montana University System scholarship and program at the University of Montana and Missoula College. Montana has the oldest population west of the Mississippi and is facing workforce shortages, especially in the most rural parts of the state. Montana 10 is responding to Montana’s urgent education and workforce needs by implementing evidence-based practices, comprehensive supports, and targeted strategies to produce more equitable outcomes for the state’s low-income, indigenous, rural, and underserved students, the program says. Ratledge, whose organization is evaluating Montana10, says the program’s success depends on offering a combination of financial, academic, and career support.

Montana 10 students receive financial support via scholarships that cover tuition and mandatory fees, a $250 textbook stipend each semester, and a $50 monthly incentive for meeting with advisors and participating in campus support services, according to its website. Students also receive advice on how to qualify for financial aid if their family’s assets are farming equipment or if they are from households that are off the grid, Ratledge explains.

Related: Thoughtful, in-person outreach crucial in attracting rural students >

In addition to financial resources, the program offers comprehensive support to improve college completion rates—in turn, increasing the likelihood that rural students will access more economically stable, better paying jobs that help their communities. Montana 10 Scholars have access to weekly or bi-weekly academic advising, where coaches who are familiar with the challenges rural students face work with students on first-year math and writing courses, time management and test-prep skills, and how to plan their semester so they can graduate on time. Students attend career workshops to aid with resume building and seminars that build community and foster belonging.

“Rural colleges matter,” Ratledge concludes. “When they’re the only option for a hundred miles, getting students in the door, and even more importantly, keeping them enrolled and helping them graduate, can have far-reaching benefits.”

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