The county where I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida was rural. We had three public high schools, a dying mall, a single Walmart, and a spot called “the power lines” in the woods where high school kids went to socialize on weekends. In senior year, my peers were deciding which of the local businesses they would be working for full time when we graduated, but I knew I wanted to go to college.
[Above: Steve Jenks, a doctoral student at the University of Denver who focuses on access to higher education for rural and low-income students, grew up in Citrus County, Florida. Jenks draws from his rural upbringing to guide his research.]
My only reference for college options were those with football teams and in-state schools that would accept the scholarship I had received for good grades. My high school was not visited by universities aside from the nearest community college.
While I worked at the local grocery story after school, some of my wealthier peers — the children of engineers and doctors — were researching universities. I got the idea stuck in my head that if you had the means, you could go to a good college. If you didn’t, you shouldn’t aim too high.
I did not know you were supposed to visit colleges. My school counselor only met with me once — to discuss the possibility of joining the Navy. When it came time to take the SAT, I had to travel more than an hour into the neighboring county to find a testing site.
Ultimately, I applied to only one college. When we attended orientation, it was the first time anyone in my family had even seen a university in person.
For many rural students in approximately half of America’s high schools, this is a familiar story. Overworked college counselors or a complete lack thereof, a shortage of visits from institutions of higher education, and a dearth of college fairs in rural communities prevent students from accessing information about their options.
Less than 10 percent of students from the bottom quartile of the income scale currently earn a college degree by age 24 compared with 70 percent of children from the top quartile. Only 34 percent of students from low-income and working-class backgrounds with high standardized test scores even apply to college.
Low-income students who meet with a college representative or receive information about financial aid are significantly more likely to attend college. But this isn’t happening in rural communities.
There are solutions to the problem, however. Experts in college recruitment and counseling suggest certain actions to improve equity in the recruitment and application process. High schools should consider the following suggestions:
● If your school does not have a counseling team, consider creating an opportunity for faculty to counsel.
● Many colleges plan visits based on numbers of potential students, so consider partnering with area schools to combine your student bodies.
● Try to schedule a time for students from all grades, not just juniors or seniors, to meet with the counselor in person, and avoid lunch-table sessions to allow for clear communication.
Higher education institutions should consider the following suggestions for improving equitable recruitment in rural areas:
● Send materials free from confusing jargon or acronyms to all schools.
● Schedule times to meet with rural schools or hold events in public places accessible to multiple area schools.
● Invite rural counselors to consortium tours and fly-ins to help get information to often-ignored populations.
● Prepare materials to talk to a wide range of age groups to provide information so pre-high school students can begin to think about college. This step is especially important when visiting areas that do not get a lot of attention.
● Aside from general program information, be sure to include detailed financial aid information and consider hosting workshops in these areas.
Steve Jenks is a doctoral student at the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. His research focuses on issues of access and inclusion for rural and low-income students. This article ran in our Summer 2019 issue.