Published on 2014/09/16

Addressing the Biggest Barriers to Education for America’s Rural Adults

AUDIO | Addressing the Biggest Barriers to Education for America’s Rural Adults
Increasing postsecondary completion rates for adults in rural areas is critical for societal advancement, but there are some major hurdles blocking these individuals from accessing higher education.

The following interview is with Esther Prins, as associate professor at the Penn State College of Education and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy and Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy. Prins, along with colleagues Cathy Kassab and Kimeka Campbell, recently conducted a study exploring the characteristics of rural Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applicants. The project was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In this interview, she discusses some of the biggest challenges facing non-traditional students from rural areas, and shares her thoughts on how higher education institutions can help them enroll, persist and succeed.

1. What are the biggest challenges non-traditional students from rural areas face when it comes to accessing higher education?

The first challenge is perhaps the most obvious and that is physical access due to geographic isolation. In Pennsylvania, where our study focused, higher education institutions are not evenly distributed across the state. As you might imagine, they’re most concentrated in urban areas. This is especially the case with community colleges. Those tend to be located around the periphery of the state and the more rural areas tend to get overlooked by that.

Community colleges tend to be the entry-level options that have historically been more accessible and affordable. Unfortunately, many rural adults in Pennsylvania and in many of the states don’t have that kind of access. Our research shows rural Pennsylvania students disproportionately rely on public four-year universities. Now that presents a problem in our state because of the very high cost of public higher education.

The second challenge is the higher cost for commuting or relocation. With gas prices at around $3.50/gallon, for your average rural adult learner, they’re going to be spending an exorbitant amount of money driving to and from college for classes. They might also need that transportation to help family members in emergencies and so forth.

Another important finding here is that we had very high levels of poverty. Among all of the FAFSA applicants in the whole state, about 40 percent were in poverty or near poverty. For adult learners, 3/5 of all learners were in poverty or near poverty, and that means extreme economic hardship.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s the high cost in general because of tuition. Again, those community colleges and lower cost options aren’t as accessible, so public four-year institutions tend to be predominantly sought after by rural adults. However, because of the types of study they’re pursuing, many of them aren’t eligible for state grants or other forms of financial aid. They may be studying part time or they may be studying for a degree that doesn’t last two or four years. It may be a certificate or diploma and, with only a few exceptions, most of those [credential programs] would not be eligible for financial aid.

Financially, the last set of barriers has to do with cultural capital. Rural residents are living in areas that tend to have lower levels of educational attainment overall. In Pennsylvania, we have 1 in 5 rural adults that have a college degree, versus 1 in 3 for urban Pennsylvania.

2. Once they’re enrolled, what are the most significant hurdles they must overcome to stay enrolled?

With adult learners, they have family obligations, they have work responsibilities; there are life circumstances that don’t always allow them to pursue education in the way they would like.

The financial aid administrators we interviewed — a couple of them also brought up the issue of reliable and affordable access to high speed Internet. We tend to assume everybody has access to the Internet now because everyone walks around with smartphones and so forth, but in the rural United States, it still lags a long way behind urban areas in broadband access. This is a problem for rural undergraduate students because they’re increasingly required to complete forms for college and the federal government online.

Lastly, of course, paying for the first year is often covered but [then they have to figure] out how to continue paying for it once they’re there. With financially independent students, they can’t necessarily get a loan from their parents when they hit a financial rough spot.

3. What kinds of changes can higher education institutions make to help rural, non-traditional students overcome these obstacles?

First is the importance of financial aid counseling and support, both prior to and during college. This is not just for your 18-year-old who is graduating from high school. Understanding loans and grants and how to pay for college and what you’re committing yourself to is very complicated and very frightening for a lot of people.

Universities and colleges have also gotten very sophisticated in creating aid packages for undergraduate students. What I haven’t seen so much is the same kind of energy devoted toward creating packages for adult learners, for non-traditional students, other than perhaps first-generation students.

Also, urging state and federal policy makers to change regulations so it would benefit non-traditional students. [For example], make students who are studying for a certification or a diploma that lasts less than two years eligible for more grant funding — not just loans —and also to those studying part time who may not make that cut off of six credits or whatever that threshold may be [to qualify]. For every year of education completed, there tend to be all kinds of economic, social and health benefits that flow from that, even if students don’t complete the degree or credential.

Institutions can offer more flexible scheduling like night or weekend classes and then, lastly, the use of blended and distance learning is becoming increasingly appealing to rural and non-traditional students who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t able to physically access a campus environment.

4. Why is access and completion among this population particularly important?

In Pennsylvania, the gap in rural versus urban educational attainment has not changed for several decades. We have an entire group of people that simply have less access to social good like education.

In addition, adults with some college [education] are really an untapped audience for creating an educated citizen rate. About 1.2 million working-age Pennsylvanians have some college credit but haven’t earned a credential. This is really a huge audience for bringing up the educational level and citizenship and economic participation of not just our state but other states as well.

If we want to live in a society where people have equal chances to pursue their goals in life and become who they want to be, we need to make public higher education and other kinds of higher education equally accessible to people in all parts of our space and across all social and economic strata.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Readers Comments

Alison King 2014/09/16 at 2:50 pm

I’ve worked extensively with rural communities over the last eight years as a higher education advocate, and I can confirm everything Prins is saying with first-hand evidence. For rural students, the challenges they face begin with enrollment and continue throughout their time at an institution. For example, some mid-sized institutions in our state don’t even recruit in rural communities, meaning these potential students aren’t exposed to the full slate of postsecondary options available to them.

There’s been a lot of attention on, and interventions aimed at, the unique challenges of inner-city urban students, military students, underprivileged students and so on. It’s good to see that institutions are finally waking up to the needs of rural students as well.

Charles Witt 2014/09/17 at 9:47 am

I agree that changes to financial aid can greatly improve access for rural students. However, speaking from my own experience as a postsecondary student originally from a town of 3,500, I think institutions need to also look at how to change the institutional culture to become more welcoming to students from rural communities. They need to look at how exactly to define “rural student,” what needs these students have and how to meet them in a way that doesn’t create hardship for the students.

    Kimeka Campbell 2014/09/22 at 12:11 pm

    This is an excellent point Charles. What would you say could change about institutional culture to make it more welcoming from your experience? What would you say defines a “rural” student? Do you think this definition changes from place to place? Conference attendees at presentation that Dr. Kassab and I did earlier this year on this research raised some of the same points. Additionally, some participants of this study had different concepts of ‘rural’ students. Which makes sense to me, as some of these institutions were more ‘rural’ than others. Thanks for your insights.

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