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A teen girl wears a white dress, western boots and a graduation cap

Students from rural communities, despite graduating high school at a similar rates to their urban and suburban peers, are less likely to enroll and graduate from college.

Dianne Gralnick/E+/Getty Images

Nationally, 29 percent of young adults (18 to 24 years old) in rural areas are enrolled in higher education—19 percentage points lower than their urban counterparts and 13 percentage points lower than those in suburban areas, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Rural learners face additional challenges in accessing and completing college, including reliable transportation, food and housing insecurity, and access to health care and high-speed internet, along with paying for and applying for college.

The Institute for College Access and Success published a brief in December highlighting trends, challenges and solutions for rural college students and four initiatives institutions can take to better support these students.

State of play: Students from rural communities, while completing high school at similar rates to their peers, enroll in postsecondary education at a lower rate. Rural communities tend to be diverse, with between 15 and 20 percent of all rural residents identifying as people of color.

Adults from rural communities are more likely to return to postsecondary opportunities, with degree attainment higher for those aged 35 to 44 than 25- to 35-year-olds.

Challenges for rural learners interested in pursuing a college education include:

  • Affordability. Poverty rates are higher in rural communities across ethnic and racial groups, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and rural students are more likely to have greater financial need.
  • College-readiness programs: Teacher and staff shortages at rural high schools can create reduced academic resources including college readiness programs (Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate or SAT and ACT prep).
  • College recruitment. Many institutions overlook rural communities in their recruitment efforts, creating a void of information for interested students.
  • Long distances from colleges. Most college students attend an institution 25 miles away from their permanent address or closer, but rural students face postsecondary deserts, where there is no college or university within commuting distance. A lack of reliable broadband internet can also present challenges for students who consider enrolling in online or hybrid courses.
  • College-going mindset. Parents and students in rural communities can hold negative perceptions about the value of college, which can hinder students’ postsecondary pursuits.

Funding Rural Student Success

On Dec. 22, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Biden-Harris administration will allocate $44.5 million in grants to 22 institutions to promote student success for rural learners.

The Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development grant funds will be applied at colleges and universities in Alabama, Arizona, California, Illinois, Kentucky, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington.

Recommendations: TICAS offers four recommendations for institutional stakeholders looking to improve rural students’ enrollment and completion:

  1. Invest in rural recruitment. Increasing counseling services, including application support, can aid rural students and provide a pipeline to the partner institution. The Small Town and Rural Students (STARS) College Network is one group looking to better advise and support high schoolers from rural areas and small towns.
  2. Create summer programs. Colleges can partner with rural high schools to show prospective students what life at college could look like, including offering summer program opportunities and campus visits.
  3. Bridge knowledge gaps. Rural students can be at a disadvantage if they lack institutional knowledge of how to navigate college. Creating mentorship or advising initiatives can help level the playing field for students to persist and succeed. College-readiness courses can also be adapted to be dual enrollment, providing high schoolers a glimpse into college while still in high school.
  4. Provide financial aid and resources. Financial challenges can hinder academic pursuits of rural students. Helping students access state, federal and institutional aid with the FAFSA or providing individualized financial assistance can help.

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