Industry Insights: Increasing Rural Accessibility
5 Minute Read
Inequities in the Education System
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, inequities in the education system are gaining newfound recognition – though they have plagued the afflicted much longer. Rural communities in particular have long faced barriers on the road to higher education and forced remote access is just the most recent. Minimal counseling options, daunting applications, and early exposure to college life have long discouraged rural students from pursuing enrollment. In many communities, the question ‘are you going’ is more prevalent than ‘where are you going.’
As with many major life decisions, students look to their parents and peers to evaluate their course of action. In rural communities, with less than 30% of rural residents age 25 and up having an associate’s degree or higher, it is understandable that students do not default to envisioning themselves on campus with their suburban and urban peers. With this lack of exposure at home, schools previously relied on class assemblies, meetings with college counselors, and incentivized competitions to complete financial aid forms to encourage enrollment. The pandemic and the new restrictions that come with it have only increased the isolation and confusion surrounding the process.
Changing the View of Higher Education
The Ayers Foundation, founded in 1999, is dedicated to changing how members of rural communities view higher education. The model is simple but effective – place a counselor with a rural background in the local schools to craft career plans and walk students through the necessary steps to reach their goals. It has been found that rural populations are typically more inclined to trust members of their own community, so the Ayers Foundation counselors offer familiarity as they walk students through the daunting process. From the lengthy FAFSA application to helping connect students and families with necessary resources, counselors simplify the process to increase the chances of enrollment.
While this model has found great success, nurturing these applicants should not solely fall on these communities. Institutions have an obligation to meet students as best they can to bridge the gap that continues to widen. Universities are less likely to recruit in isolated communities forcing rural schools to bus their students an hour or more to make college fairs an option. There is no quick fix to this issue – overworked admissions counselors, coupled with time and budget restraints, can’t simply tack on a few extra schools to the route. Admissions professionals aim to yield a well-rounded and diverse class. However, when forced to choose between efficient and budget friendly routes these rural schools are often passed up.
So, what can we do?
If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that solutions are out there – we just need to get creative and embrace technology. We’ve witnessed companies that would have never entertained the notion of remote work fold to keep employees safe. Now, after almost a year of this new norm, it is evident some functions can be performed flawlessly online. Could the same be said of recruiting in neglected communities? By bolstering online recruitment efforts and stimulating the connection between these prospects and current students, institutions can provide access that has long been missing for these students. Giving rural prospects access to current students with similar backgrounds could allow visibility into how college is not out of reach and could be the right fit for them. Additionally, streamlining communications and resources could serve a similar role to Ayers counselors – simplifying a complex process to make it less intimidating for applicants.