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The Keys to Recruiting and Retaining Rural Learners

AUDIO | The Keys to Recruiting and Retailing Rural Learners
Universities should explore partnerships with rural-based colleges to maximize accessibility for rural students.

The following interview is with Mike Drish, director of admissions, recruitment and outreach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Despite being in the 18 to 22-year-old age range, some students still differ significantly from the traditional student profile. Among these are rural students, who must navigate a significant and unique set of challenges in pursuing their postsecondary credentials. In this interview, Drish discusses some of the challenges these students face and sheds light on the strategies his institution has found to be successful in supporting access and success for rural students.

1. Why is it so important for universities to focus on accessibility for rural students?

All of us in higher education believe a college educational community is more vibrant and rewarding through geographic and socioeconomic diversity. What we’ve found is rural populations have some of the lowest postsecondary participation rates of any demographic and that leads to a college access problem. If a rural student’s ability to prepare, apply, finance and succeed in college is hindered in any way (and we know that it can be) then it’s our duty as a postsecondary institution — and especially in the University of Illinois’s case as a state flagship land-grant university — to focus on removing any barrier to access.

2. What are some of the most significant challenges rural students face when it comes to accessing higher education?

The first would be “under matching.” That’s when a student attends a university that’s less selective than ones they could have attended based on their academic and personal successes. Most of these students have the wherewithal to thrive in some of the leading universities in the country but they often end up at local or less selective public universities. The issue is that their choice was usually not made when comparing offers of admission from a wide range of universities.

Why does that happen? That leads to the second point: the availability of resources.

If a student doesn’t have [access to] a knowledgeable, dedicated college counselor, if they’re not surrounded by family or friends who went to a college that’s [something other than] that local, less selective university, they just don’t have the availability of a resource to assist them as they maneuver through a pretty complex process.

All of this is couched in the third challenge, the notion of perception. Rural students, as do many students, perceive things like selectivity or cost as a barrier to access. Financial aid is such a critical factor in college attendance and choice decision. When you don’t have those resources, when you’re not really looking at a wide variety of universities, if you don’t fully understand the notion of holistic admissions or the nature of need-based aid or even how merit-based aid can work, that makes matching students with these highly selective or flagship universities even more of a challenge.

3. For rural non-traditional students, specifically adults, are there any challenges that group faces that aren’t necessarily reflected in the experience of 18 to 22-year-old rural students or an urban-based adult?

One of the biggest challenges is the notion of integration or assimilation into a four-year residential college community. If the university does accept transfer students, the difficulties can be actually finding courses available or fitting into the social structure when you’re not taking the exact same courses or you’re not going through the day in the same way as the majority of students on that campus. Even a non-traditional adult or someone that’s working and trying to take those classes, they can be making every effort possible but that integration will still be extremely difficult.

4. What are a few strategies you’ve found to be particularly successful when it comes to opening the door to rural students?

Early outreach is critical to breaking down those barriers and really ensuring students and their families are keeping an open mind.

At the same time, though, because of the challenges we’ve discussed, we understand that even if they do keep an open mind and gain admission and secure financial assistance, the option to attend a four-year residential university that could be hours away from home in a completely different part of the state could still be out of reach. One of the things we’ve done here at the University of Illinois is collaborated with many in the Illinois Community College District, especially those in rural areas statewide, to offer something we call Pathway Programs to the University of Illinois. Those are a clear path for students to transfer to one of the top public universities in the nation and benefit from some portion of that four-year residential experience, but they’re able to complete one or two years of their education at a local community college.

5. Hand-in-hand with enrollment is retention. What are the biggest challenges to retention and persistence that rural students must overcome?

It’s that integration into the residential community environment that exists at the types of university we’re talking about. That includes but is not limited to academic integration, social integration and, overall, the student feeling confident in their college choice, and whether or not you feel part of that campus community will reinforce whether you’re happy with the choice you made.

6. How can institutions adapt to support retention of their rural learners?

One word that always surprises [prospective] students at college fairs is that I use the word “community” to describe the University of Illinois; it surprises people because we have 32,000 undergraduates. Sometimes those less selective state universities in rural areas don’t offer that environment, so this is a new concept for a lot of those students.

For rural students specifically, one thing we’ve found some success in is training and developing our academic advisors so they’re prepared to counsel and advise students based on their individual backgrounds, their individual experiences. Every student who comes in to your office for counselor advice is not going to be the same.

This interview has been edited for length.

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