It was only a few decades ago that rural students seemed to be absent from the college admission landscape. But today, rural students are becoming more important to colleges and universities that want to diversify their student populations and improve access to higher education.
By James Paterson
This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition (Number 254) of the Journal of College Admission
Lorenzo Gamboa has an easy way of connecting with kids from small towns and rural areas as director of diversity, inclusion, and outreach at Santa Clara University in California. It’s his personality and training, but it’s also because he knows all about their experience—he lived it.
Gamboa graduated with just seven others from high school in Aguilar, a remote southern Colorado town of about 450 people where Ringo’s Grocery Mart and the Sunset Tavern are among the few businesses along the four blocks of Main Street.
He finished in the top of his class and became perhaps the only local graduate to ever go on to a private four-year institution, but he hopes he is not the last. He believes as colleges wisely make recruiting rural students a greater focus, they are also finding those students are valuable beyond filling seats and bolstering slumping enrollment—and they will build on those efforts in places like Aguilar.
“Rural students have become the new unicorn that might help us increase numbers, but colleges will also find they offer a lot more,” he says. “There are golden nuggets if they search a little bit for them.”
“The best thing you can do is treat each student as if they are the only one who matters and find out what is important to them. I have rural kids who live on a farm but also students whose parents are double Ph.D.s.”
There are increasing reports about colleges doing just that, but Gamboa and others who work with the population say such efforts may require admission professionals to carefully consider some of the challenges these students face with the process—and their different needs and preferences. At the same time, experts say, it is important to drop some general assumptions about rural regions and the students they produce, recognizing that each area and student is different.
Professionals who work with rural students say they do, however, generally offer some unique characteristics.
A sense of community is important to them—so they often can become appreciative and engaged members of the college community, Gamboa notes, and they can “add to the housing models of community success that everyone is always looking to improve.”
“They understand what it takes and what it means to work hard, and they may value the degree more at times,” he says. “They have heart, desire, and grit and tend not to sweat the small stuff because they have become masters at
“For example,” he says, “they may have gotten up before dawn to work on the family farm, prepped for the community board meeting before school, dressed up to be captain of sports or cheerleading teams, and returned home to do it over again. If they order Uber Eats they can appreciate the work it took to get that burger on the bun and cook the french fries They’ve done it.”
While Gamboa’s assessment may be anecdotal, it is backed up by others in higher education who suggest that rural students have value beyond enrollment numbers.
Jon Westover is associate vice provost and director of admissions at North Carolina State University, which has a reputation for supporting rural communities in the state and supporting rural students on campus. He says their recruitment is a key part of his department’s effort.
He sees some of the positive characteristics Gamboa describes, but notes that colleges may not recruit rural students because of misconceptions they have— broad generalities about rural areas, for instance, that can limit the effectiveness of recruitment.
“There is a myth that rural students tend to be white farmers,” says Daniel Showalter, an Eastern Mennonite University (VA) professor who was one of the four authors of Why Rural Matters, a detailed report on rural education and the college readiness of students from those regions. “This may have been true several decades ago, but the demographics of the rural population is shifting quickly and is becoming less white and less agricultural. ‘Rural’ looks very different in different regions around the US.”
Showalter’s research showed that about one in five students attend a rural school but they may not get as much attention from colleges because incomes are generally lower in rural areas and research has shown colleges aim recruitment at areas with higher per capita incomes.
“There is a misconception that rural students are all poor, also, and that isn’t true,” says Gamboa. “And there is also this idea that rural communities and rural families don’t care about education, but the truth is that schools and education are often at the center of the rural communities and the families there.”
There is also an inflated concern that rural students won’t be happy at a larger school or a school far from home, but Sarah Soule, postsecondary planning coordinator at Union High School in Middlebury, Vermont, says that if they have the right information about a school before attending and the right preparation and support on campus they can be very successful.
“The best thing you can do is treat each student as if they are the only one who matters and find out what is important to them. I have rural kids who live on a farm but also students whose parents are double Ph.D.s,” she says.
She also notes that it may be assumed rural students are less successful academically or less committed to education, which is not accurate.
Showalter’s data does show that about 10 percent of rural students passed an Advanced Placement test, half the percentage of students in urban districts, which may reduce their attractiveness to some schools. In addition, research in the past has shown that rural students are considerably less likely to be admitted a top-50 university, and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that about 56 percent of rural and urban students enroll in college while about 62 percent of suburban students do.
But research by Showalter’s team also showed that in many states rural students performed better academically; they took the SAT and ACT at a similar rate as those in other areas and dual enrollment courses at twice the pace of other students.
“Region could even be important to talk about,” says Showalter. “Even when we see states ranking high in rural poverty, they’re probably going to have some affluent rural outlier districts in the state and vice versa. Averages are the general trend, but there is quite a bit of variance from state-to-state and district-to-district.
That variation heightens the need to study a variety of factors when considering recruitment in a particular school, district, or state, he notes.
“I suppose the best approach is to spend time in those places, or give rural students a place on campus or in the admissions process to tell their stories and be heard.”
Westover agrees: “There are two pieces of advice we use in recruiting rural students. We try and not generalize about who they are, or what majors they might be interested in,” he says. “It also is critical to get to know the school and the environment. That is why it is so important for us to travel to these high schools and meet their counselors.”
THE CHALLENGES OF RECRUITING RURAL STUDENTS
Gamboa admits that recruiting rural students may require some resourcefulness—visiting a remote school with eight graduates and not a lot of connections to higher education may not, for instance, offer the best return on investment. He says, however, a visit increases in value if admission offices and high school officials believe they are building a college-going culture over time.
“They might provide a program for an assembly to a whole school—even much younger students. Then the payoff can be longer term.”
Gamboa says on such visits they would find that rural students may have different strengths and experiences. They may value membership in the Future Farmers of America, for instance, or Boy Scouts, and college representatives may be
competing more often with military recruiters, who he believes get more attention from students in rural areas.
Often the popular theory that “college isn’t for everyone,” which rightfully gives students the justification to pursue other avenues, can be overemphasized in rural areas, experts say, and limit student aspirations.
Their schools also may have understaffed counseling offices, and not have counselors specifically assigned to help with college access. More students are likely to lack broadband service, too, which makes so much of the exploration and application process challenging—and their ability to get up-to-date fundamental information.
“They may need help with some information and basic steps,” Soule says.
Admission representatives should remember to be sensitive to the differences in a rural school, she says. She recalls that a college representative visiting her school told students to take out their laptops, not realizing that a sizable number of the students didn’t have laptops and several didn’t even have access to the internet.
“It embarrassed them and made her look out of touch,” she says.
Margaret Jenkins, founder and director of the college consulting firm Palouse Pathways in Moscow, Idaho, says that college representatives and high school counselors should begin working with rural students headed to college earlier than they might with other students.
“Many young high schoolers are open to possibilities, but as they go through high school, they settle into pursuing the narrower range of options more readily available,” she says.
She also says professionals working with them should engage their families in the process early and appreciate that they may need some fundamental information about higher ed processes and structures.
“Don’t assume they know about the CSS, or liberal arts colleges, or other things well known in other college-going communities,” she says. “Don’t assume their parents are closeminded about possibilities but do make sure you talk to them about affordability and safety and support for their student. They have questions and concerns even if they don’t express them.”
Jenkins is also one of the founding members of NACAC’s Rural and Small Town Special Interest Group. That group’s mission is “to bring rural and small town admissions and college counseling professionals, as well as those committed to rural and small town education, together to increase college access and success, promote college-going culture in rural areas, and support counselors and students at rural and small town schools.”
Showalter says that having students and families visit a campus is the best way for them to become more comfortable with the specific school and the college experience generally.
Soule notes that partnerships between high school counselors and college professionals are perhaps even more important in rural areas. She notes that her relationship with a soughtafter private school in upstate New York has brought that college some of her school’s best students and given her a pipeline for students she wants to assist.
James Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.
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