How to find high-achieving rural students outside your normal pipeline

Expert Insight

How to find high-achieving rural students outside your normal pipeline

Universities and colleges that want to recruit more rural students tend to run into a major systemic issue: in most states, rural students (a) have much lower rates of taking both AP or IB coursework; and (b) take the SAT or ACT less frequently.

To identify rural students with the skills to succeed in higher education, we encourage enrollment and admissions professionals to consider an under-utilized pipeline of talented students: Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs). There are many such organizations at the state and national level, and membership could be considered a good signal that a student has a career path in mind and is driven to pursue extracurricular experience in a given field.

Consider the size of the opportunity in your region

Hundreds of thousands of talented students participate in CTSOs across the country. Identifying the ones that your college or university could best serve may be as simple as finding shared professional fields and areas of expertise. Below are six common national CTSOs and their listed high school membership numbers for the most recently reported year.

CTSO NameProfessional Field(s)Membership
FFA (Future Farmers of America)Agricultural science, business, and technology670,000
DECAMarketing, finance, hospitality, and management200,000
Technology Student AssociationSTEM fields185,000*
HOSA-Future Health ProfessionalsHealth and medical sciences165,000
FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America)Family and consumer sciences164,000
Business Professionals of AmericaBusiness management43,000

*Estimated value because membership is reported combined for middle and high school.

Explore why CTSOs have untapped recruitment potential

EAB spoke with Jeff Carlson, Senior Director of Strategy, Operations & Rural Engagement at College Board, about the untapped potential that CTSOs represent. He highlighted several key reasons that connecting with CTSOs should be on every school’s radar:

  1. Students in CTSOs, especially those like FFA, are far more likely to be rural students, so schools should pay attention to the places they can find the demographics they wish to recruit.
  2. In rural areas and small towns across the country, career and technical education is often where high-achieving students go because these course pathways fill the gaps where AP, IB, and other college preparatory classes are unavailable.
  3. Students who engage with CTSOs often have a clear vision of their career paths that has been developed through their close relationships with career-focused organizations.

41 million rural Americans live in a higher ed desert→

Considerations for exploring potential CTSO partnerships

For colleges and universities looking to start a partnership with a CTSO, we recommend considering a few key questions.

You want to identify organizations with whom you have good alignment. Ideally the programs these students would be interested in are among your top-performing offerings, and your admissions staff and faculty are willing to reimagine their admissions criteria in cases where different credentials or evidence of readiness may be required. For example, would a summer project portfolio be sufficient evidence of an equivalent achievement in an AP course?

Sometimes institutions find that partnering with certain organizations or groups is challenging when there is a pedagogical, ideological, or systemic difference of opinion. We advocate talking about these issues early and openly. A successful partnership does not mean complete alignment, but it does require dialogue.

Ensure you understand the costs and expectations the CTSO may have of your college or university and be up front about your corresponding stipulations for the CTSO. For example, if you want to guarantee that the organization brings 1,500 students to your campus each calendar year, they may ask in return that you attend their award ceremony and pay the $2,000 vendor fee to do so.

Partnering with CTSOs is not the only way to reach rural students, but it is certainly an under-leveraged way to find new, qualified students. These organizations could be part of the solution in helping recruit diverse populations to your campus.

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