Rural student recruitment 101

Daily Briefing

Rural student recruitment 101

Your guide to tried and tested recruitment strategies from EAB research

Improving campus diversity is often top of mind for enrollment leaders. But while diversity has traditionally been considered in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion, many enrollment leaders are now looking to incorporate geographic diversity into their enrollment goals by recruiting rural students.

“We saw that rural students—they are smart, they are talented—are really inhibited by their geography and they’re severely underrepresented on college campuses,” says Marjorie Betley, senior associate director of admissions and director of the rural program at University of Chicago.

Why? According to recent research from EAB‘s Enrollment Management Forum, recruiting rural students poses several challenges for enrollment leaders.

Barriers to enrollment

EAB research lays out the three distinct challenges enrollment leaders face when aiming to reach and connect with rural students:

  • Lack of brand affinity
  • Recruitment resources with high ROI are unclear
  • No consistent presence beyond recruiting activities

And these are just a few of the barriers enrollment leaders face. Rural schools also tend to have strong placement pipelines with community colleges and vocational programs, making it difficult for four-year universities to win over students, says Nicole Hurd, chief executive of College Advising Corps. For guidance counselors at rural high schools, elite colleges don’t seem like a realistic option for most students, writes Douglas Belkin for Wall Street Journal.


of American adults—as many as 41 million people—live in a higher education desert
of American adults—as many as 41 million people—live in a higher education desert

There are also factors that make it logistically difficult for enrollment teams to connect with rural students. For instance, high-achieving rural students can be difficult to find if they live in remote locations or have difficulty accessing the internet, says Greg Roberts, the dean of admission at the University of Virginia.

After all, nearly 20% of American adults—as many as 41 million people—live in a higher ed desert, according to the Urban Institute. And three million of these Americans also lack access to broadband internet.

Finally, many enrollment leaders also face skepticism from rural communities, which are more likely to doubt the value of higher ed, notes Belkin. In fact, many rural students come from communities where few jobs require a bachelor’s degree, he adds.

Connect with rural students

Here’s what EAB research proposes when it comes to connecting with and recruiting rural students:

of current rural students to learn both where to concentrate your recruitment efforts and how to update campus programs and services.

by establishing extension offices or appointing representatives to build social trust with rural communities. For example, the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC), which was established in 2014, operates six hubs scattered throughout rural northern Pennsylvania. The NPRC borrows classroom space from local high schools, public libraries, and other community buildings. Although NPRC doesn’t award its own degrees, it provides the infrastructure for other colleges and universities to “extend their reach” through virtual and in-person teaching, says Anne Kim, a senior fellow and director of domestic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

in counties that already—or could potentially—feed into your institution. For example, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte recently placed its first regional recruiter across the state in Wake County, which has proved to be a major feeder for the university.

to rural high schools to alleviate the financial burden of travel on prospective students. After all, rural students often see cost as a barrier preventing them from visiting college campuses outside their communities. Colleges can also invite current rural students to speak to prospective rural students about their experiences or spotlight certain jobs in rural communities that require a college education.

in rural areas by attending or hosting community events.

Sources: Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 12/4/17; EAB case study, 9/19/19 [1]; EAB case study, 9/19/19 [2]; EAB expert insight, 9/18/19; Kim, Washington Monthly, September/October 2018; Pappano, New York Times, 1/31/17; Rhodes, Chicago Tribune, 9/4/19

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