Top universities intensify rural student recruitment

To increase enrollment of low- and middle-income students and narrow the urban-rural disparities in access to higher education, top universities are reaching out to high school students in rural communities and small towns that have traditionally been ignored by college recruiters, NPR reports. 

Rural students face unique barriers to higher education, including a lack of nearby colleges—education deserts exacerbated by reduced state funding for higher education. Families in rural communities also may have unreliable access to high-speed internet and financial difficulty covering college costs and affording basic needs. In 2019-20, rural students’ high school graduation rate was 90%, a rate slightly higher than those of their peers in urban (82%) and suburban (89%) areas. However, only around 55% of rural students in the high school class of 2022 immediately enrolled in college after graduation, the National Clearinghouse Research Center finds.

Students in rural and small-town communities have typically been neglected by college recruiters. A 2019 Joyce Foundation report by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Arizona found that public research universities prioritize recruiting out-of-state students and visit affluent, urban communities in large metropolitan areas while ignoring rural communities, according to NPR.

Related: Making higher education dreams a reality for Black rural students >

Increasing college recruitment

The Small Town and Rural Students College Network (STARS), a consortium of 16 universities—including Brown University, The University of Chicago, and the University of Maryland—is committed to improving outreach to and support of rural students and their families. Participating universities hope their collective efforts in visiting students in rural and small towns across the country will be more effective than individualized, siloed attempts to reach those potential applicants. The consortium began in April 2023, initially funded by a $20 million grant from a University of Chicago trustee who left a small town in Missouri to attend the university.

Members of STARS, such as Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), are bolstering their small town and rural recruitment efforts in part to increase socioeconomic diversity, Inside Higher Ed reports. In 2014, WashU was named one of the least economically diverse colleges in the U.S.: Pell Grant recipients accounted for only 6% of first-year students at the university from 2012-14, according to a New York Timesanalysis. To increase the economic diversity of its students, the university implemented financial aid programs, such as the WashU Pledge, which covers undergraduate education costs including tuition, fees, housing, and a meal plan—an estimated $83,760 each year. For the class entering WashU in 2020, the share of first-year Pell Grant recipients had increased to 16%.

To continue growth in low-income student enrollment, the university turned its attention to rural students through the Heartland Initiative in 2023, which includes an all-expenses-paid summer program for rural high students to connect with faculty and staff from similar backgrounds. The initiative also provides workshops and “fly-in” support for high school counselors in rural areas.

“Rural students are not a monolith,” Dacoda Scarlett, associate director of the Heartland Initiative, tells Inside Higher Ed. “For us, diversity has expanded to include the rural demographic.”

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