Thoughtful, in-person outreach crucial in attracting rural students

Colleges and universities looking to reach and recruit rural students should tailor their messages and prioritize on-the-ground interactions, according to a recent panel discussion at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting. About 7,000 of 14,000 U.S. school districts are rural, and students in those regions are prone to feel “ignored by decision makers” and “have distinct values and lifestyles that are fundamentally misunderstood,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

‘Rurality is different everywhere’

It’s important to recognize the nuances of rural life and “think specifically about the types of rural students that you’re looking to recruit,” said panelist Jennifer Carroll, professional learning lead at Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative. “Rurality is different everywhere,” she added, pointing to southeastern Kentucky, where school systems are the largest employers and— unlike some other rural environments—there isn’t a significant agricultural presence. Rural students may be reticent to ask for help, lack the financial resources to apply for college or retake standardized tests, and lack visibility into life on a college campus, Carroll noted.

The panelists also said certain messages—for instance, those that imply students are moving on to bigger and better adventures—could fall flat with rural families. “The biggest fear is that you’re going to put a ton of investment into this kid…and they’re going to run away to an urban area and never come back,” said Jeff Carlson, who moderated the panel and is a senior director for strategy, operations, and rural engagement at College Board. Panelists instead suggested showing rural families jobs in their area that require a college education or showing students how a college education might allow them to come back and help their communities.

The wrong audience for virtual engagement

Panelists identified another common pitfall: Colleges’ reliance on virtual outreach to connect with rural students. Many rural communities don’t have reliable internet service, said Rachel Fried, who coordinates a federally funded college access program called GEAR UP at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. She suggested instead using virtual approaches with “urban schools that have a ton of technology, that have videoconferencing…and you actually go visit places that don’t have that type of infrastructure.”

Developing a presence in the community

Colleges and universities also have an opportunity to supplement scarce counseling services in rural areas by helping to inform high school students about postsecondary options and the application process, said Megan Dorton, senior associate director of admissions at Purdue University in Indiana. Purdue partners with the College Board on a program called Making College Connections, which hosts events such as college planning nights at high schools in remote regions of the state.

Connecting with rural students, however, is about more than just recruiting, Fried said. Deeper engagement with community needs shows rural families “that universities aren’t on a hill, that they are there to help, not just to take kids to college, but really to support the surrounding area.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

PeerForward mobilizes student leaders to boost enrollment for other low-income students

A nonprofit organization is mobilizing peer leaders to use their influence in helping low-income students get into college.