Breaking Myths and Making College a Possibility for Small-Town Students
Graduates from rural high schools are among the most underrepresented demographics at American colleges. In fact, fewer rural teens go off to college than those in any other demographic group. There are many factors that contribute to the enrollment disparity between small-town students and their peers in the cities and suburbs, ranging from geographical isolation and income inequality to cultural traditions and political beliefs. But change is on the horizon. New technology, targeted initiatives, rural-centric organizations and a renewed focus from many colleges on boosting small-town enrollment are bridging the country-college gap.
Why Rural Students Are Less Likely to Go to College
Although rural students don’t go to college as often as high school graduates in the larger cities, they’re just as prepared academically. The National Center for Education Statistics shows rural students not only score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than students in cities, but small-town graduation rates are higher than the national average. It’s clear that ability and drive are not responsible for the rural higher education drought, but there are some common themes to why rural students are less likely to go to college. Find more information on some of the solutions to break each trend below.
Programs Encouraging Rural Students to Attend College
Organizations of all stripes have recognized the untapped resource of bright, young, motivated rural students—and many are working hard to bring small-town academic stars to college. Here’s a look at some of the programs designed to mitigate those obstacles.
The Best Types of Schools for Small Town Students
Rural students considering higher education might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of colleges available to them. Different schools can offer wildly different college experiences. Some schools are like small cities, with tens of thousands of students, stadiums and on-campus nightclubs. Others are tiny, local institutions with a few hundred students. In between are technical colleges, Christian universities or schools that support a particular demographic, racial or ethnic group.
Is there a “right” school for students with rural backgrounds?
“In two words: not necessarily,” said Jason Patel, founder of Transizion, a college prep company that is focused on closing the opportunity divide in America. “Why? Every student has different preferences for what he wants in a college. You want to take several elements into consideration. These elements include school size, school location, professor-to-student ratio, weather, dorm life, school spirit, sports, and a number of other factors.”
Different School Experiences Categorized
“Essentially, every student is different,” Patel said. “Some students from these areas might want a school that fits the profile of their home. Other students might want to go to a big city and experience the lifestyle in a bustling metro.” Here are some different college demographics and experiences categorized to help rural students considering what kind of school might be most appealing.
The most important thing, according to Patel, is to keep your mind open during research and avoid preconceived notions about people, places and schools. “You need you consider each student ‘s differences before considering schools,” Patel says. “Don’t assume things. ” The U.S. Department of State also helps answer other frequently asked questions about college choices on the Education USA page.
Online College for Rural Students
The emergence of online education has made college more accessible to the current generation of rural students than it has been for any previous generation in history. This is even more true for highly remote rural students in communities that are isolated, disconnected or simply too far away from traditional institutions where on-campus higher education is realistic.
Online Learning Explained
Sometimes called distance education, eLearning or web-based study, online
learning uses technology to deliver college coursework to students without
requiring them to physically show up at a classroom. Some programs require students to occasionally visit campus for tests or labs, and others are delivered in a hybrid format that combines face-to-face study with a remotely delivered curriculum. But by and large, distance learners can achieve the college dream from the comfort of their own homes.
Instead of seeking to bring rural students to college campuses, online learning can bring the college to the small town academic.
The coursework is usually the same, and sometimes more challenging than it would be with traditional college study
Classes are generally taught by the same instructors that teach on campus
Graduates receive the same exact diploma as their on-campus counterparts
Classes and programs enjoy the same level of accreditation as on-campus courses and degrees
Benefits are the same for distance learners just like their on-campus counterparts, including advising, counseling, help with graduation, IT assistance, library services, help with substance abuse or depression, textbook discounts, career counseling, etc.
Online learning is often less expensive than traditional college programs and degrees
According to the University of Washington, distance learning can also mitigate traditional barriers for rural students, like:
- Transportation issues
- Anxiety about culture shock
- Reluctance to leave obligations at home
Web-based education can even help rural students prepare for college long before they graduate high school by exposing them to advanced placement (AP) and other high-level coursework that might not be available at their high school.
Students with College Cost Concerns
Paying for college is one of the top worries for students today, no matter if they are from the city or rural areas. For some rural students, cost concerns can be incredibly overwhelming. The good news is, there are plenty of programs designed specifically to ease the financial burden on small-town students. Here are a few examples:
Additionally, many colleges and universities offer their own financial awards to rural students. Check with your state’s public universities, which are most likely to offer assistance and rural outreach.
Transitioning to College from a Small Town
One of the biggest things holding rural students back from enrolling in college is the fear of culture shock-and that fear doesn’t exist only in their imagination. It’s often tough to transition from attending a high school with perhaps a few dozen students in the entire school to a campus with tens of thousands of people. Small-town students can arm themselves with the skills and resources needed to ease the transition. Here are four ways to make it easy to get adjusted to college life.
Extra Resources and College Advice
A feeling of isolation, either real or imagined, has held countless small-town students from pursuing higher education. However, even the students from America’s smallest towns, reservations or outposts are not alone. Here’s a look at some helpful general resources that can help make college a reality and a success.
The National Center for Research on Rural Education (R2Ed): Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, R2Ed works to address and mitigate the unique challenges faced by rural students pursuing academic careers after high school.
Rural 360°: Subscribe to this newsletter for insight into the programs targeting the rural community, partnerships and outreach programs delivered by R2Ed.
The National Rural Education Association: Billed as “the voice of rural schools and communities,” NREA offers a wealth of resources and tools for students just like you. Visit for information about rural education laboratories, links to national organizations committed to rural education and connections to other useful and relevant groups and programs.
Rural Community College Alliance: America’s 600 rural community and tribal colleges are the backbone of Middle America’s higher education network and the gateway to higher education for so many rural students. RCCA unites the entire network under one roof.
The Rural Broadband Association: A lack of reliable high-speed internet has plagued many rural students — and this can be an especially harsh barrier to entry for those interested in distance learning. If your home, school or town is bogged down by slow or nonexistent Internet connectivity, RBA is packed with resources that might be able to help you bridge the IT divide.
“You might feel out of place, but every student there is or was new to campus,” Patel said. “Everyone has self-doubts and is nervous about fitting in. Just because you’re from somewhere new doesn’t mean you don’t belong. In fact, your ability to embrace a new environment demonstrates why you deserve to be there. So, be open-minded, say ‘yes’ to new experiences, make friends, stay close to those who help you and keep on moving forward.”