As skepticism about the value of a college degree grows, institutions double down on recruiting rural students. But many colleges and universities struggle to connect with these students, according to a panel of admissions counselors and administrators at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2018 meeting.
At the meeting, panelists argued that many colleges miss opportunities to win over skeptical rural students because they either opt out of visiting rural high schools or fail to appeal to rural students’ interests and goals.
Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer shares the two biggest mistakes colleges make when recruiting rural students, according to the panelists:
Mistake 1: Colleges expect to reach rural students virtually
Many colleges miss the opportunity to recruit rural students simply because they don’t visit rural high schools, argued Rachel Fried, program coordinator at GEAR UP, a federally funded college access program at Appalachian State University.
For example, Jazmin Regalado, a student at New Mexico State University from Fort Sumner, recounted that she had dreamed of attending an elite university in the Midwest. But she ended up only applying to the colleges that had attended her high school college fair (about four in total). “Being from a small town, you only know so many colleges,” she said. “You have tunnel vision.”
Fried explained that colleges assume they can reach students like Regalado virtually. But internet access can be a major barrier for many rural students. In fact, about 680,000 people in Florida alone lack access to broadband internet service, according to a report presented to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Council.
“I would posit that colleges and universities suggesting virtual opportunities as the solution to rural education equity is actually giving the short kid the short box,” Fried said. “Maybe you do your virtual stuff with your urban schools that have tons of technology, that have videoconferencing, whatever, and you actually go visit places that don’t have that type of infrastructure.”
Mistake 2: Colleges treat rural students as a homogeneous group
Jennifer Carroll, the professional learning lead at Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, pointed out that colleges often fail to recognize the differences between rural students. For example, a student from southeastern Kentucky, where the economy doesn’t rely on any form of agriculture or industry, will have a very different experience than a student from an area dominated by the energy sector.
“Think specifically about the types of rural students that you’re looking to recruit to colleges, because rurality is different everywhere,” she said.
And when colleges lump all rural students together, they miss opportunities to appeal to different students’ interests and goals, added Jeff Carlson, the senior director for strategy, operations and rural engagement at College Board.
To illustrate his point, Carlson pointed to an advertisement showing a student from Rio Grande Valley who attended college in New York and went on to work a high-profile job in New York City. “Wasn’t that great?” Carlson said. “Not for that kid’s family in the Rio Grande Valley. Not for that kid’s teachers. The biggest fear is that you’re going to put a ton of investment into this kid, you’re going to watch them grow up, and they’re going to run away to an urban area and never come back.”
While some rural students may want to leave for college and never look back, others hope to return to their community with an education and “help their own,” Fried pointed out. Colleges need to tailor their messages to rural students’ different goals to avoid alienating prospective students.
So how can colleges recruit and connect with these students? Panelists suggested that colleges invite rural college students to speak about their experiences or spotlight certain jobs in rural communities that require a college education.
“When universities really decide to commit to developing rural pipelines, they are committing to a multiyear engagement process that will not yield results for the first three to five years,” Fried explains. “We must get into communities and help and change the perception of our universities in those spaces” (Seltzer, Inside Higher Ed, 10/8/18; Dunkelberger, Gainesville Sun, 8/14/17).
Learn more about recruiting rural students
Institutions feel pressure to recruit rural students for both mission- and business-related reasons. Our briefing outlines the reasons why the college-going rate for rural students lags behind urban and suburban peers, the primary worries rural students have about college, and the challenging nature of recruiting in rural areas across the country.
Learn how one UNCC alum worked with admissions to help fund a visit program for prospective college students at his former rural high school.