A quick word association: "underrepresented students."
What comes to mind? The smart money's on "racial minority students from urban areas," or some form of that answer. Often forgotten, but most often included in such definitions, is the subgroup rural students.
There's good reason to think of the urban ills first. Data  from the National Center for Education Statistics show that high school dropout and unemployment rates are higher in cities than in rural areas. The median earning level, when adjusted to reflect regional cost differences, is also lower in urban centers, according to the report.
Still, on those benchmarks, people living in rural regions fared worse than those living in suburban districts, and often towns. And college enrollment rates for both 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 29-year-olds were typically lower in rural areas than in all other locales.
The economic woes of rural America are no secret, and colleges have long played a leading role in upward mobility stories. For the communities, the loss of human capital, often referred to as brain drain, remains a pressing concern. If the top students leave for college, will they ever come back? For states, the question is whether graduates will head to the nearest big city, regardless of whether that means crossing a border.
Those issues are particularly topical in places such as Ohio and Oregon, where students in rural counties are unlikely to graduate from college, and job opportunities are often more plentiful elsewhere. Two U.S. senators, Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), introduced legislation  this year that aims to strengthen support systems for rural students interested in a regional college, and to create an employment pipeline.
The College and University Rural Education Act, included as part of the House's version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization, would authorize the U.S. secretary of education to award grants to colleges that pledge to create partnerships with school districts, educational agencies, employers and other groups. The idea is to provide training to mostly "nontraditional" students who are interested in careers that are "relevant to the regional economy."
Some state and federal lawmakers, as well as regional nonprofits, are also promoting the pipeline idea as a way to keep rural students at home. The Arizona Board of Regents recently approved  $1 million in new funding to the University of Arizona to support a rural education initiative that will bring new degree programs to Arizona’s far-flung counties.
The three-year pilot program is targeting adults in the rural southern part of the state for whom relocating to take courses at one of the state's universities isn't an option.
Mike Proctor, vice president for outreach at Arizona, said the idea is to introduce programs that target a specific job market need. The university plans to collaborate with local community colleges to offer programs for new teachers and those wanting extra credentials. A four-year commerce/entrepreneurship degree would also be available at several locations.
“We’re trying to prevent the loss of human capital that occurs,” Proctor said. “You might have a mature teacher's aide who for the first time in life has time to pursue a degree. And she ends up moving up the road, and ends up paid more and never comes back. You may have just lost somebody; higher education in its current structure may have contributed to the loss of that person [for the rural area].”
Arizona is following the orthodoxy on how to attract nontraditional, older students: offering hybrid courses (online and in person), promoting flexible schedules and providing teacher ed courses after hours at local high schools.
Still, the university is up against National Center for Education Statistics data showing that a smaller percentage of rural adults than adults in cities and suburban areas take part in part-time college or credential programs. (Arizona, though, is offering some full-time programs that lead to degrees.)
Proctor said he's confident of the student demand, though he admits that making the programs cost-effective for the university will be a challenge. Arizona decided not to rely heavily on online interaction in classes and is hiring adjunct faculty who live or can travel to the rural areas.
"It's a heck of a lot of work for a small number of students, but the land-grant theme of educating everyone is still relevant," Proctor said.
The early focus of the pilot program is on students with some postsecondary credentials who are looking for career advancement. But Proctor said the commerce program should attract plenty of traditional-age students.
And therein lies the public policy question facing anyone who discusses such initiatives: Does it make sense to target traditional-age students who might take their degree and go elsewhere, or focus on older students who are more likely rooted in a given region?
Thurston Domina, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Irvine who has written about issues of "educational segregation,"  favors the latter model. While he doesn't discount the importance of outreach and training programs such as TRIO and Gear Up for younger students, Domina said those efforts aren't designed to solve the brain drain problem.
"If I'm a state lawmaker and I'm looking to maximize the bang for my buck, I'm looking at nontraditional students 30 and up who want jobs in education, nursing and other professional degrees," Domina said. "The older people get, until they reach retirement age, the more likely they are to stay put."
Higher Education's Role
In some cases, as in Arizona's, staying local hasn't been an option for would-be students. Tom Hilliard, senior policy associate at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, played up the importance of having a college, or at least classes offered, within driving distance of a community.
"It's polite fiction that if people are dedicated to higher education, they'll move to the campus," he said. "That's just not realistic."
A 2006 report  from the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the Education Policy and Leadership Center, using a regression model combining family income, geography and college enrollment, found that two key factors that suppress the college-going rates of rural students are the number of colleges in the region and the lack of a nearby open-enrollment institution.
Students in rural areas often come from less-affluent families, as the report noted. But the authors said that even though the state’s colleges are among the nation’s most expensive, the price of a higher education is “important without being a determining factor in the decision to attend or not to attend” college.
The report advised the commonwealth to either open new community colleges, open branch campuses of established community colleges in adjacent counties and regions, or develop funding mechanisms that allow counties without community colleges to assume a fair portion of the financial responsibility when students from those counties attend community colleges elsewhere.
Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at Penn and head of the Learning Alliance, said that since the report came out, lawmakers in his state seem more aware of the issues, but that little money has been pledged to expanding the presence of affordable colleges.
Given the link made between colleges and the college-going rates in a region, residents of the Northeast would seem to have an advantage over those who live in the Mountain West, for instance, given the relative population density and number of institutions concentrated in the former. But, as the report makes clear, even in states like Pennsylvania, rural populations can be without a regional institution.
Zemsky said policy makers in parts of the country with large urban populations tend to take for granted their rural populations when thinking about education and the regional economy.
Colleges, though, are often on the lookout for high-achieving rural students. More than three in four institutions surveyed in 2003 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling said geographic diversity was listed in their mission statement as an important priority -- though the question didn't ask specifically about rural representation.
A yet-to-be-released NACAC survey shows that 44 percent of colleges say a student's state or county of residence plays at least some factor in admissions decisions.
"Does that make the case for the rural advantage? It's hard to say," said David Hawkins, the association's director of public policy and research.
Jonathan Stroud, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Cornell College, a private college in Iowa (that isn't necessarily a low-cost one), said any such advantage is small. A typical college draws mostly from its own state or from states nearby, he said, and some colleges are hesitant to recruit rural students from outside the region if a recruiter is unfamiliar with a high school or unsure whether the student will end up staying closer to home.
Stroud said anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of Cornell's incoming students are from rural communities and attended a public high school with a graduating class under 100 students. That number is partially a product of the college's location in a rural setting, he said, but also due to its recruitment and admissions strategy of geographic diversity.
Stroud said one of the challenges of recruiting students from rural areas can be the response from parents and school college counselors. "The mentality is sometimes, 'We went to a nearby college, a public institution, and that was good enough for us. Why would anyone want a different experience?' "
As Rick Dalton, president and chief executive officer of College For Every Student, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help underrepresented students access higher education, wrote recently in a co-authored piece  in the Albany Times Union: "Rural families often feel threatened when their children want to go off to college -- because when they go, they may be leaving for good. Families don't pass the dream along to their children. And the children don't pick it up on their own."
Matching Skills with State Needs
For nontraditional students, though, the concern is more likely how their children or spouses will perceive their return to the classroom. It's this group of potential students that is key to a rural area's economic fortunes, said John Hill, executive director of the National Rural Education Association , a membership organization based at Purdue University that focuses mainly on K-12 issues.
Bringing in a teacher from an urban or suburban area isn't a long-term solution, Hill said. "If you want business to come back to rural areas, it seems that you need to recruit people who are already there or find people who grew up there who are comfortable coming back," Hill said.
That's the focus of the Southern Good Faith Fund, a nonprofit organization in Arkansas that offers career guidance for lower-income residents. Aside from advising students on how to fund their educations (the group has a partnership with a bank holding company), the organization works with students on what it calls a career pathway plan -- mapping out what skills, degrees and work experience are needed for a given profession.
Angela Duran, the organization's president, said the group tends to advise students to seek out a degree in education and nursing, two of the most in-demand fields in the region. The group also works with the state's two-year college association on developing curricula that help students prepare for likely jobs.
Dalton said that while the model of matching training and education offerings with the regional job market is catching on, it's not a one-type-fits-all proposition. In New York, for instance, many rural communities are seeing major enrollment declines in their school districts, which means fewer slots for new teachers and less demand for teacher training.
On balance, he said states are still figuring out the best way to get institutions and employers to work together to improve the local job market.
In the Adirondack communities, his group organized teams of principals and college faculty that arranged for K-12 students to visit college campuses for discussions about admissions, financial aid and other higher education topics. College students also served as mentors to the younger students during the academic year. A two-year study of the project showed an increase in college-going rates for the students who took part in the program.
Zemsky, the Penn professor, said that while efforts to improve the pipeline in rural areas are well-intentioned, unless middle and high school instruction is improved, the problem of unprepared students will persist.
Hillard puts some of the onus on companies, as well. "It's one thing to say that these high school graduates don't realize the opportunities available to them, but in many cases employers aren't really thinking in terms of a career arc of someone who's graduating."