Rural community colleges, high school counselors key players in college access efforts

As the COVID-19 pandemic further exposes rural students’ complicated path to college, some education leaders and nonprofits are launching initiatives aimed at increasing educational opportunity and economic mobility in rural communities. Rural students have long faced college access challenges, from a lack of reliable internet access to a dearth of nearby institutions and counselors. 

While 79 percent of people living in America’s most fragile communities believe having a college education is important, only 28 percent living in rural areas believe they actually have access to an affordable college education. Just 42 percent of students at rural high schools go on to graduate from college within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.   

BRIDGES initiative focusing on community colleges

Education Design Lab is working to change that dynamic through a new, three-year initiative to support rural community colleges. The Building Rural Innovation, Designing Educational Strategies (BRIDGES) initiative will research the challenges rural community colleges and their students face, and work with five community colleges to come up with ways to support rural institutions, their students, and their communities. The initiative is being funded by the Ascendium Education Group, an education philanthropy. 

Education Design Lab leaders hope to emerge from the program with a set of recommendations to help a wide swath of rural community colleges—institutions that disproportionately serve underresourced students—position their learners for long-term success. 

“From the digital divide; education deserts; and other long-running disparities in access to education, health care, and economic opportunity, rural America has long been an afterthought in our nation’s efforts to boost postsecondary opportunity and learner success,” Amy Kerwin, vice president of education philanthropy at Ascendium Education Group, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Kerwin says she hopes the new BRIDGES initiative will help offset some of the wage and equity gaps magnified by COVID-19, driving positive change by “identify[ing] new impact-oriented approaches for fostering greater educational and economic opportunity in historically underinvested rural communities.”

The pandemic has required rural student advocates “to yell even louder,” adds Dr. Vanessa Sansone, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Sansone emphasizes that the success of interventions like BRIDGES will hinge on recognizing the diversity of rural populations and the “intersectional identities at play” in rural communities of color.

Strengthening connections between high schools and colleges 

Other efforts are focusing on students’ transition from high school to college. Berea College in Kentucky, an institution that is tuition-free for nearly every enrolled student, supports Appalachian students through its Partners for Education program, the Daily Yonder reported. Pre-pandemic, Partners for Education placed counselors in rural high schools and helped rural students adjust to campus through in-person summer programs. The organization in recent months has switched to online webinars and programs— and has hosted even more students than usual via its virtual offerings.

The Rural Special Interest Group (SIG) of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, meanwhile, pivoted this spring to have college admission staff prepare video “spotlights” to show how their institutions support rural students. Guidance counselors in rural high schools then share the informational clips with students and families as a substitute for campus visits. Andrew Moe, director of admissions at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and co-leader of SIG, hopes this greater focus on connecting from afar will improve college access in the long-term for rural students, who, even without a global pandemic, may struggle to travel great distances to visit an array of campuses.

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