Bridging a Growing Divide

A new program spearheaded by the University of Wyoming seeks to prepare rural students for college and bridge a divide between far-flung communities and higher ed institutions in the state.

September 29, 2022
Students in University of Wyoming T-shirts walk on campus.
(University of Wyoming)

The University of Wyoming is launching a new program focused on boosting enrollment and graduation rates among rural students in the state. Campus administrators hope the initiative builds stronger ties between higher ed institutions and rural communities in Wyoming at a time when some rural residents across the country feel ideologically distant from academic institutions and are increasingly questioning the value of a college degree.

The three-year program, called the UW High Altitude Pathway, is a partnership between the university and College for Every Student (CFES) Brilliant Pathways, an organization that runs college-access and career-readiness programming focused on low-income K-12 students in rural areas. The initiative will provide college-prep training to up to 2,000 high school students selected from 10 rural public schools, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The students are also scheduled to tour campuses virtually and participate in a multiday stay at the University of Wyoming campus in summer 2023, where they’ll take sample courses.

The program also includes training for school administrators, counselors, support staff and local community members to nurture students’ college ambitions and teach them about and help them navigate the admissions process.

“This is about culture change within the schools,” said Scott Thomas, the John P. “Jack” Ellbogen Dean of the University of Wyoming College of Education. “We’re going to try to affect the water in each one of these schools in ways that shape the culture to a college and career orientation in those communities.”

The majority of counties in Wyoming—17 out of 23—are rural, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. The state has one of the lowest college enrollment rates in the country, and just over half of state residents, 52 percent, hold a college degree or certificate, according to a news release from the University of Wyoming, the only four-year public higher ed institution in the state.

Rural students nationally attend and graduate from college at lower rates than their peers. Only 30.4 percent of rural-area residents age 25 and older held an associate degree or higher in 2019, compared to 43.2 percent of adults in cities, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Higher ed institutions have increasingly sought to attract and graduate these students. For example, Stanford University launched the Stanford Rural Engagement Network in 2018 to study and increase awareness of the challenges facing rural students, and Harvard University created its National Center for Rural Education Research Networks a year later. The Education Design Lab, an organization focused on education innovation, also started the Building Rural Innovation, Designing Educational Strategies, or BRIDGES, in 2020 to help rural community colleges create pilot programs to support their students.

Rural students face obstacles to going to college such as high rates of poverty, spotty internet access and a lack of reliable transportation to and from campuses that are often miles away. But there are also psychological barriers, said Dreama Gentry, the CEO of Partners for Rural Impact, a nonprofit organization focused on improving academic and career outcomes for rural students.

“In areas where you have persistent poverty and economic challenges, I think there’s this lack of hope that the outcome can be any different, and I think that lack of hope is shared by the students and the parents,” she said.

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She noted that many rural students also see limited job prospects in their surrounding communities and don’t know how college credentials could lead to those jobs.

A ‘Building Distrust’

Rick Dalton, CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways, said initiatives such as the University of Wyoming’s program also come at a time when he’s seen a “building distrust for higher education in rural communities,” which the program seeks to address.

He believes the distrust is partially a reaction to the increasing cost of college, which is why the program will also teach students about accessing financial aid and finding other ways to pay for college. The initiative also will help students explore fields of study that could lead to well-paying careers and will give students opportunities to meet college graduates from their communities.

“It doesn’t work nearly as well if I or a CFES professional goes into a school and talks,” Dalton said. “But if we can get someone who they know, who has been transformed by higher education, then they certainly hear that message.”

Gentry said increased political polarization nationally has worsened already strained relations between conservative-leaning rural communities and higher ed institutions viewed as liberal-dominated spaces.

Students are sometimes deterred from going to college, and staying enrolled, by parents worried about their children “being influenced by folks whose values might be different,” she said.

Gentry recalled a rural high school student telling her that she expected to be judged once she got to college and that “folks were going to say, ‘Well, you’re from this rural place and you’re going to have to believe A, B and C … Because of where you come from, your beliefs are wrong,’” she said. When more conservative rural students “end up in a class where the professor is operating off of an acceptance that everyone in the room believes a certain thing, and they don’t, it becomes a hard place for them.”

Rural families also sometimes fear that their children will earn degrees that prepare them for jobs outside their hometowns and that they’ll leave and won’t return, Thomas said. He noted that part of building trust with students and parents is shedding light on how different kinds of programs, including career and technical education credentials at community colleges, can help fill labor market needs in their communities.

“If you’re not attending to career and technical education issues as a foundational opportunity in a program like this, you’re going to be missing the boat,” he said. “These sentiments run deep, and they’re real.”

Lisa Larson, head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund at the Education Design Lab, said she encountered this concern when she was president of Eastern Maine Community College. Nursing school graduates were relocating to Bangor for better-paying jobs, which left a local rural community with unfilled nursing positions and members of the community feeling “like they hadn’t been heard” and their workforce needs had been ignored by college officials. She responded by creating a nursing program at a satellite center of the college within the community.

Larson said college leaders have to ask themselves, “What does a partnership look like to change the narrative? … And that starts to build trust.”

Thomas, the dean of education, said he’d be glad to see the new program bring more rural students to the University of Wyoming, but the goal is to expose students to the full range of academic opportunities available to them and “stoke those aspirations … in ways that are meaningful to them and relevant to their communities.”

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