Why are so few colleges connecting with rural students?

College recruiters tend to focus their efforts on urban and suburban high schools, but institutions looking to stem declining enrollment numbers and attract applicants from all corners of America may need to step up their efforts to reach prospective students in smaller, rural communities, according to The Hechinger Report.

Rural high schools rarely on the itinerary

The Hechinger Report details the experience of rural Michigan students traveling to attend a Grand Rapids-based college recruiting fair organized by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Without such gatherings, the students likely wouldn’t see any college representatives in their rural communities—recruiters just don’t come.

“When we think about an urban high school, a college recruiter can hit 1,500 students at a time,” Andrew Koricich, an assistant professor of education at Appalachian State University, told The Hechinger Report. “To do that in a rural area, you may have to go to 10 high schools.” The lower average household incomes found in rural areas are also a factor: a new study conducted by researchers at UCLA and the University of Arizona indicates that colleges and universities are more likely to recruit at high schools in areas where the average family income is above $100,000—and more likely to ignore communities where it falls below $70,000.

Further complicating matters, many rural areas lack a “college-going culture,” leaving students reluctant to move away, without the means to visit campuses, and skeptical they could even afford a college education.

Making college more representative

In focusing exclusively on urban and suburban students, colleges and universities are missing out—not only on a chance to enroll more students but also to enrich their communities with diverse perspectives. They also risk further alienating a segment of the population prone to “feel powerless and marginalized,” according to research from the University of Virginia.

Increasingly, however, “colleges and universities with ample money in their recruiting budgets are rediscovering” rural communities and adjusting their recruitment strategies accordingly, says The Hechinger Report. NACAC is supporting that shift in mindset, providing colleges with research on rural students and hosting regional recruiting fairs. “Providing greater postsecondary opportunities for rural residents isn’t simply a matter of equity or moral obligation,” Koricich said. “It’s a matter of continued national prosperity.”

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