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

According to federal data, less than 30 percent of adults living in rural America have a postsecondary degree, limiting their access to living-wage jobs. Several organizations are working to change that dynamic, by addressing the cultural and educational obstacles standing in the way of rural students’ success beyond high school. 

The Ayers Foundation, created by Tennessee businessman John Ayers more than 20 years ago, has emerged as a model for transforming how people view higher education in rural communities, much like the county where Ayers grew up. Calling The Ayers Foundation “the most important college access program you’ve never heard of,” The Hechinger Report recently highlighted its success helping impoverished and resource-restricted communities in Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas to drastically raise postsecondary enrollment rates. 

The foundation’s approach to bolstering postsecondary options for students begins with placing a full-time counselor—someone specifically with a rural upbringing and community connections—in a local high school to supplement existing counseling services. There, the counselor helps every student to create a career plan and walks them through the necessary steps in order to pursue that path, including the college application process and how to pay for their postsecondary education. The counselors are well-versed in the dynamics of rural life and ensure every student has a next step, rather than focusing only on a select few headed to elite institutions. 

Through a partnership with a national philanthropic collaborative called rootEd Alliance, The Ayers Foundation is now reaching more than 3,000 students across dozens of rural high schools and provides nearly $4.7 million annually for college fairs, campus visits, counselor support, and scholarships.

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

“We are barrier removers,” Janet Ayers, wife of Jim Ayers and president of The Ayers Foundation told The Hechinger Report, in describing how the organization and counselors aid students in navigating paths to higher education. Whether they’re helping students navigate basic needs insecurity, mental health services, homelessness, or immigration laws, the counselors offer personalized guidance  that appears to be making a world of difference in addressing the rural education gap. 

In John Ayers’s former stomping grounds of Decatur County, Tennessee, the foundation has helped Riverside High School boost postsecondary enrollment from 24 to 84 percent across the last two decades. Other participating high schools have achieved similar college-going rates.

Recognizing the Ayers program’s potential to boost their enrollment, too, some rural community colleges have signed on to support the effort, by sponsoring additional high school counselors and creating “navigator” positions on campus for students needing additional guidance. 

A push to close the gap

Nonprofit organizations like Education Design Lab (EDL) see rural community colleges as a key player in addressing postsecondary education disparities and supporting job and economic growth. Recent data from the McKinsey Global Institute suggest that job growth in rural areas will continue to trail behind that of urban regions for the next decade. By way of a $1.9 million grant from the Ascendium Education Group, EDL has tapped five institutions—College of Eastern Idaho, Eastern Maine Community College, Finger Lakes Community College in New York, and Ohio-based Washington State Community College and Zane State College—to craft and evaluate educational paths that position students to remedy workforce gaps and improve economic opportunity and mobility in rural areas. 
“The idea is that the learning we can do will be shared with the field,” EDL’s Chief Program Officer Don Fraser tells Higher Ed Dive.

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