Published on 2014/08/19

Overcoming Four Key Challenges to Rural Student Postsecondary Success

Overcoming Four Key Challenges to Rural Student Postsecondary Success
Rural students may face a number of roadblocks when it comes to accessing and succeeding in higher education, but colleges and universities can make small adjustments that would help them overcome these challenges.
Success can indeed be found at the top of a hill, especially if you prepare for the challenge and have a positive outlook.

That’s what one young woman discovered on a trip through the rolling hills of Appalachia. As she traveled with a vanload of high school classmates on her first visit to the only college campus within 100 miles, the van topped a rise and she could see a sprawling barrage of buildings.

She immediately asked, “What is that?” A counselor told her it was their destination — a major public university. The girl simply replied, “Oh, I could never go there.”

In truth, she had the grades and the ability to succeed, but as the first to possibly go to college in a family from a rural isolated community in one of the most impoverished counties in the nation, she had neither the perspective nor belief in her own ability.

And, of course, no one in her family had any idea about the possibilities that might lie at the top of that hill.

This young lady is very typical of many who could experience success and, ultimately, a better quality of life if she only made that first step over the hill.

Fortunately for the young lady, that institution had recently made it a top priority to increase postsecondary access for such underserved students. While serving this population may be quite challenging, it also creates great opportunities for higher education institutions to meet the needs of such students and communities while also having a positive impact on the institution.

While serving such students has its challenges, opportunities abound for institutions to better assist them. Below are four challenges, but also four related opportunities, for consideration:

1. Creating Comfort with the College

Challenge #1: Students in underserved populations often do not know “how to go to college.”

A large number of these potential students may be first-generation college students who have had limited access and exposure to college-bound and enrolled students or college graduates and professionals. Going to college may be as daunting as traveling to a foreign country without knowing the language or having an interpreter.

Opportunity #1: Campuses can help students learn “how to go to college” by offering early exposure to help them learn to navigate this “foreign country and its language.” As has often been said, graduation from college begins in kindergarten.

Institutions must get students on campus and exposed to higher education early, especially by middle school, before all of the distractions of driving and hormones begin. Camps, ball games and other sports activities, band and music events and a variety of clubs provide a point of entry for exposure. Partnering with K-12 school systems to reach out to students early and often in the schools can also help demystify the process.

2. Underpreparedness

Challenge #2: Many students in underserved populations are underprepared — academically, socially and/or culturally — to initially handle college life.

Poor, rural K-12 schools often have limited resources, including a lack of appropriate high school level courses, technology and other tools needed to help students become college ready. The students themselves might also have perceived or real gaps in skills and abilities. And their families may have had either little time or resources for academic, social and cultural activities.

Opportunity #2: Colleges can offset limited academic preparation with assistance through multiple academic opportunities such as dual enrollment programs, summer and or after-school academic opportunities, participation in programs such as Upward Bound and TRIO programs that provide tutoring, mentoring and other resources to help address the lack of preparedness.

3. Limited Available Resources

Challenge #3: The underserved student population often faces limited resources, including poverty, financial constraints, social capital, cultural differences and a lack of role models in potential career paths.

Opportunity #3: Institutions can assist students as they navigate the financial aid process and educate them to avoid the huge burden of debt. Institutions can also offer peer mentors and interactions with faculty and staff to assist in navigating the maze as well as opportunities such as service learning and other extracurricular activities. Colleges can also make a point to reward students for their involvement in social and cultural activities as well as their academic successes.

4. Support System Critical

Challenge #4: Underserved student populations have a need for connections, a strong support system that will help retain them in their respective programs and lead them to college completion.

Opportunity #4: Nothing takes the place of a human connection. Sometimes the support and attention of one caring individual, not to mention an entire institution, can make the difference between graduation and a student failing to complete a degree.  A caring campus climate that purposely provides connections will have a tremendous impact on student success.


With campuses that embrace both these challenges and opportunities, that young woman in the van and others like her will have the opportunity to scale the hill to success.

Here in South Carolina, rural students and others who attain bachelor’s degrees earn an average of $15,000 more a year than non-graduates and more than $1 million in lifetime earnings. These graduates gain an education and a greater opportunity to increase family income, resulting in a better quality of life. At the same time, their success will have a positive impact on job creation and economic prosperity for their counties, states and the nation.

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Readers Comments

Suzanne Collins 2014/08/19 at 1:30 pm

Great points about the key challenges related to rural student enrollment and integration, as well as the opportunities that arise from them. I work for a large public university and we’ve found that some of the strategies we use for international enrollment can apply to our rural populations. For example, having a presence in our students’ local communities is important (think of an overseas recruiting office). We keep small ‘offices’ open in rural communities during the summer so that students who have gone home can still access institutional support during those months. Each ‘office’ can be as small as one staff person, but the importance of that institutional presence cannot be overstated. It’s a useful service for students and also gives us greater exposure within that community. One benefit of rural communities is that word travels quickly, and news of our institution’s efforts to support rural students attracts even more.

Kimberly Neil 2014/08/19 at 2:46 pm

Many of Elkins’ suggestions are contingent on a cultural change within the institution. Right now, there still isn’t wide recognition of the need to serve rural students differently. One thing that could help is offering training to staff who work directly with these students to better understand the contexts they may come from.

Samantha Avery 2014/12/15 at 9:32 am

“As has often been said, graduation from college begins in kindergarten.”

I couldn’t agree more with this line! Sometimes it’s easy for us as academics in big-name schools to really understand the barriers rural students can face throughout their lives. The article really hits the nail on the head — thank you!

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