The Expensive and Absolutely Necessary Pursuit of Rural Students
The postsecondary needs of rural residents have gained increased attention in recent years. As part of this expanding conversation, it has become clear how difficult it is to reach out to rural high schools and recruit more rural students to campus. The problem, of course, is academic ability is equally distributed throughout society but educational opportunityis not.
Admissions recruiters rarely visit smaller, rural schools, and those recruiters who do tend to be from more access-oriented institutions. It’s less common for public flagship universities and major private institutions to maintain a regular presence in rural high schools. As such, there are high-ability students attending rural high schools who will never have the opportunity to meet with college recruiters outside the closest community colleges, public regional universities and smaller private institutions. Further, for non-traditional students in rural communities, there may be even fewer chances to meet with college representatives without traveling to campus.
Therefore, it is imperative for institutions that publicly claim to value inclusiveness, equity and access to be present in rural schools. Resource allocation in higher education still follows the adage of “putting one’s money where one’s mouth is.” Unless an institution is willing to fund recruitment in rural schools, they are not serious about serving and educating rural students. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) has made a point of expanding rural student recruitment. It recently announced the creation of a new rural recruitment program as a means to better serve rural communities across the state. The initial launch includes three new recruiters assigned to rural areas of the state, with plans for targeted expansion in strategic locations.
Of course, there is no question that recruiting in schools with smaller student populations is not as cost-efficient as recruiting in large suburban and urban high schools. Programs like the one at UNL will be expensive. Many institutions do not have the financial resources of a flagship, land-grant university in a major athletic conference. Therefore, it is imperative that institutions look for resources to supplement and expand rural recruitment.
For public colleges and universities, the onus for funding these activities really should belong to the state legislature. Community colleges and regional comprehensive universities are charged by their states to provide access and opportunity to broad swaths of the state’s population within a primary service area, whereas public flagship universities aim to provide access statewide. The in-state tuition subsidy provided by states is another signal that the intention is for these institutions to be accessible to residents. If state legislatures continue to hold these beliefs regarding their public institutions, they must consider whether they are willing to provide funding for recruitment to more isolated communities. A recent report highlights that, nationally, per-student state appropriations to higher education have not recovered to pre-recession levels, as only nine states have reached this point a decade after the official end of the Great Recession. Even in a stronger economy, some states have cut appropriations in the last year.
When public institutions are faced with inadequate state appropriations, it is difficult to do more with less. Instead, institutions must do the same (or less) with less, which would preclude institutions allocating scarce resources to recruit in small, rural high schools that may only yield a handful of students at most. Therefore, state legislatures must reaffirm their commitment to supporting public higher education by allocating the resources necessary to be present in all of the communities the institutions are charged with serving. Research shows that public research universities in states with weak per-student allocations tend to focus more of their efforts on out-of-state recruitment, with a number of these institutions sometimes conducting more than twice as many out-of-state visits than in-state. This necessarily disadvantages rural students, as these less-numerous in-state visits are occurring in a state’s primary centers of population and wealth. Thus, the importance of state funding in motivating rural student recruitment cannot be ignored.
As for private institutions, it’s first necessary to make an important distinction: Not all private institutions are wealthy, highly selective institutions. Many smaller, less-affluent private colleges have a greater access mission and a more regional service area. In rural communities, having one of these access-oriented, private institutions becomes an important educational delivery point. These institutions likely already maintain connections with high schools in the surrounding rural area. For institutions that are more selective and have a larger recruiting footprint, it may be necessary to turn to philanthropy to generate additional funding to support rural student recruitment. Institutions can identify current or potential donors who have a rural background and work to garner funds to help recruit rural students and support them through to completion. Of course, this strategy may also be implemented at public institutions in the absence of additional state support.
The other aspect of bridging the recruitment gap is how to get prospective rural students to visit campus when they may be separated by hundreds of miles and many hours of driving. Some institutions have implemented “fly-in” programs wherein the institution provides support for the prospective student to visit campus, but the structure of these programs varies significantly across institutions. Some institutions only provide for on-campus activities during the event, leaving the prospective student to pay transportation costs, while others cover commercial transportation up to a few hundred dollars. Programs with little or no travel reimbursement still remain largely inaccessible to rural students. Additionally, students would need to have proximate access to commercial airports, train stations, or bus depots, which can also preclude individuals in rural communities from participating. Therefore, in order for these programs to reach and benefit rural students, their awards and conditions must be adjusted. This is another activity that can create considerable expense for institutions, so these types of programs represent another area that could significantly benefit from increased state appropriations and targeted philanthropy.
In the end, it is crucial for institutions to recognize the need for sending admissions recruiters to rural schools and to assist prospective rural students in visiting campus to make informed postsecondary choices. These activities can be costly, but so, too, is ignoring untapped markets of potential students at a time when the number of traditional-aged students is declining. Rural communities and their residents are critical members of society and our national economy, so there should be broad interest in ensuring these individuals have equitable and accessible postsecondary education opportunities for years to come.
Author Perspective: Educator