Darah Tabrum can quickly list all the good qualities
of her students at Navajo Preparatory School, located in the remote,
dry and rocky region just east of where the northwest corner of New
Mexico meets three other states.
They are independent, she says, and resilient, with an excellent work
ethic and willingness to take on new challenges. Moreover, they develop
close ties to their peers and involve themselves in the community.
These are desirable characteristics that she hopes colleges will see
in the students, nearly all of whom are Native American. But Tabrum, a
former high school college and career coordinator who now serves as the
community engagement coordinator at Navajo Prep, also knows getting that
message across can be a challenge. Too often, she says, there are
sticky assumptions about students from minority groups and, more
broadly, students from rural areas.
“There are often negative ideas about what our students are capable
of. Some people don’t fully understand what they can bring to the
table,” Tabrum said. “Some colleges assume that they aren’t ready for a
college-level curriculum without fully understanding rural students and
their potential and achievements within the context of their region.”
Tabrum is among a growing group of admission officials, high school
counselors, and college access professionals who say rural students
don’t always have the same access to college as their counterparts in
more urban areas.
Darris R. Means, an associate professor at the University of Georgia
who has researched the problems rural students face as they explore and
enroll in college, worries about the subtle, implicit bias Tabrum
“We shouldn’t assume anything about these students. They are a
diverse group and have many strengths,” he says, noting that admission
officers, counselors, parents, and others may underestimate or
pigeonhole rural students, contributing to “significant constraints for
college access and enrollment.”
For instance, he is concerned that an overindulgence in “college
isn’t for everyone” thinking might be more common in some rural areas
and may limit how students think about higher education. Meanwhile, some
admission offices may wrongly believe small town students are less
likely to be successful or won’t fit in on campus, making retention a
Given the barriers, he and others who advocate for rural students
have developed a variety of ways they can be supported ranging from
extra guidance from peers or others in their close-knit school and
community, to early preparations to help them enthusiastically create a
path to college and thrive when they attend. Changing both college
recruitment strategies and the focus of high school counselors also
might help. And addressing the cost of higher education at the local,
state, and federal levels would potentially offer the biggest boost,
Andrew Moe, one of the founders of NACAC’s Rural and Small Town
Special Interest Group, notes that “despite being underrepresented on
college campuses and seeing few admission officers in their communities,
students in rural areas are going to college, albeit at lower rates
than their suburban and urban peers.”
The 61 percent college enrollment rate of students in rural public
schools is at least 6 percent below the rate for students in suburban
and urban schools, according to national data. Rural students are also
considerably less likely to attend a selective college or university,
more likely to delay attendance, and, according to some researchers,
more likely to withdraw from college.
Undermatching can also be a concern. According to Sindy Lopez, an
analyst with Ithaka S+R who also has researched the issue, federal data
show that only 16 percent of rural students enroll in highly selective
colleges, compared to 30 percent of students from urban areas and 53
percent from the suburbs. In addition, she notes that using consistent
academic and social criteria, The Chronicle of Higher Education found rural students were 2.5 times less likely to enroll in the top 50 universities and liberal arts colleges, as defined by US News & World rankings.
That deficit occurs despite the fact that rural and small-town
students generally score better than average on National Assessment of
Educational Progress tests and finish school at nearly the same rate as
“It is clear that there is a lot of talent in rural communities,”
Lopez writes. “If America’s high-graduation-rate colleges and
universities provide greater access and opportunity for talented
low-income rural students, they have the potential not only to propel
these students’ social mobility, but to provide benefits to their
communities as well.”
“There are often negative ideas about what our students are capable of. Some people don’t fully understand what they can bring to the table.”
—Darah Tabrum, community engagement coordinator, Navajo Preparatory School (NM)
Means and other advocates have found that several factors make it
more difficult for students from small towns and less populated regions
to attend and succeed in college, resulting in what he calls the
“invisibility of rural schools, districts, and students and their
Rural students often cannot travel easily to visit college campuses.
College representatives, likewise, face challenges when planning to
visits to remote areas.
“Rural students do not always have the resources to make college
visits and admissions officers do not frequently visit rural schools,”
says Linda Binion, counseling director at King George High School in a
rural part of Virginia, about 70 miles down the Potomac River from
Washington, DC. “As a result, rural students tend to look at a limited
number of colleges in a close geographic area.”
While NACAC promotes consideration of rural students among admission
officers, David Hawkins, the association’s executive director for
educational content and policy, has noted that more selective
institutions are often less likely to participate in small regional
recruiting fairs that draw rural students.
Another problem stems from the well-documented decrease in income
levels for families living in rural areas, particularly in regions
struggling with unemployment or underemployment.
According to one national study, colleges are more likely to recruit
from areas with families whose incomes are above $100,000 and forgo
visits to areas where the average family income is $70,000 or lower,
putting rural students at a disadvantage. The study, by EMRA Research,
also found that colleges concentrate disproportionately on private
schools, which are more commonly found in large urban or suburban areas.
Other research found low-income students were less likely to want to leave their communities and may face pressures from home.
“I worked with a student who supported her family financially and ran
the day-to-day activities of the household,” says Binion. “When she
applied to college, she left the computer screen open and her mother
sabotaged her college application. In some families this change creates
There can also be student anxiety about navigating a large or urban
campus, and even worry from parents about how it will change their
relationship, Binion said.
“Parents, for instance, wonder if they can relate to their
college-educated child or if their child will move away and not want to
spend time with them after being exposed to a different lifestyle,” she
Donald Crow, a former veteran counselor in rural Colorado who now
works on a state program designed to get more trained counselors in
schools, says the availability of counselors has a significant effect on
college attendance by rural students.
“Because of tight budgets, many of the people in those (college
counseling) roles are teachers or other school personnel...Many of them
also have full-time class loads, and they don't have time to attend
workshops, or get training, or spend the time with students that is
needed. In most urban areas they have specific career and college
Limited resources can also mean that schools in these regions provide
fewer options when it comes to accelerated academics, unique
extracurricular activities, and travel opportunities—factors that many
colleges weigh when making admission decisions, says Chris Gage, vice
president for strategy and enrollment at Hanover College, located in
rural southeastern Indiana. Although dual enrollment has grown in rural
areas, with 23 percent of rural students enrolled in at least one dual
enrollment class, not all colleges grant transfer credit for those
courses. And researchers have also found the rigor of such courses
“When a student is attending a school with fewer resources and little
or no AP, they are attracted by the prospects of gaining credit—or even
an associate degree—through dual enrollment, but that can be
misleading,” Gage says. “They may have what they believe is a semester
worth of credit, but they may not be prepared for the college work that
“It is clear that there is a lot of talent in rural communities. If America’s high-graduation-rate colleges and universities provide greater access and opportunity for talented low-income rural students, they have the potential not only to propel these students’ social mobility, but to provide benefits to their communities as well.”
—Sindy Lopez, analyst with Ithaka S+R
Implicit biases are prevalent when it comes to rural students and can
lead colleges and the adults supporting these students to limit their
goals. And often, parents and students have the idea that simply getting
into college is enough, Crow added.
“Many parents in rural areas think four years of college are the
student's ticket to (a) better life,” he says. “Then, unfortunately, the
student goes for one or two years, amasses debt, and quits because they
were not properly prepared and advised.”
Gage notes, however, that rural students and those advising them also
shouldn’t automatically rule out a big school or a campus in an urban
environment. He recalls one student who believed she was limited to
attending a small college because she was from a very small town and
small high school. Ultimately, she wasn’t happy at the small college.
“She transferred to a much bigger institution and loved it and did very
well,” he says.
Like Tabrum at Navajo Tech, Gage can tick off a long list of
qualities that rural students possess to help them thrive at Hanover and
“We have found they tend to be humble, and have a certain grittiness
and strong work ethic, and an ability to get things done on their own,”
he says. “In fact, they have to often be encouraged to use support
services that are available to ensure their success.”
But ultimately, like all applicants, rural students should simply be judged on their merit, Gage says.
“It is important not make any assumptions about any student,
including based on where they come from. Sit down with them and seek to
understand their lived experiences. Find out why they are interested in
your college and what they will bring to it.”
A group of more than 1,000 professionals from admission offices, high
schools, and other organizations have come together through NACAC to
form a special interest group (SIG) devoted to improving college access
for rural students.
The Rural and Small Town SIG brings together professionals who
support rural education and share knowledge of rural assets, challenges,
and issues with one another. Anyone can join. A variety of resources
are available to members, including monthly virtual meetings and lists
of rural high schools.
“We wanted to bring all folks to the table to prioritize rural
college access; offer free resources and a network to advisers and
school counselors—many of whom have little to no professional
development funds but incredible ideas; and to tap experts to share
knowledge and best practices,” said group co-leader Andrew Moe, director
of admissions at Swarthmore College (PA).
Here are 10 things admission officers, counselors, and others can do to support rural students.
Promote higher education early and often. K-12
counselors and others should encourage students at a young age to
explore all colleges and careers, initially without regard to cost,
size, or distance. With colleagues they can implement coordinated
college planning messages for families as students progress through the
grades. Summer sessions for high school students have also paid off.
Encourage students to plan ahead. Tell them about
factors that sometimes complicate college attendance for students from
rural areas. Ask them to consider what their challenges will be—from
financial or family pressures to worries about adapting to a big campus
or urban area—and how they will overcome them.
Develop an “all hands” strategy. Schools play an
important, central role in rural areas. Counselors should creatively and
energetically involve the school and local community in efforts to help
students appreciate the value of college, explore their options, and
apply. Support from alumni and other adults can be especially powerful,
as can financial assistance.
Exert peer pressure. Ask recent graduates or, for
younger students, high school juniors and seniors, to provide
information about the college admission process. Building excitement
about attending college can help increase enrollment.
Create college connections. Help connect students
with admission officials who may be less likely to visit. Consider
online chats or collaborate with other schools on visits and college
fairs. Build relationships with admission representatives to help assure
them they’ll be connected with interested students and get support in
their recruitment efforts.
Bury bias. Don’t make assumptions. Data shows rural
students perform well. They test better and graduate at a higher rate
than students generally. And beyond that, they often have other unique
characteristics that make them worth pursuing.
Get creative. Consolidate efforts by hosting a
“visit day” for rural students at your school. Consider providing
transportation for participants or schedule an online session for rural
applicants. For students from especially remote areas, stay in touch
online and consider making up for a lack of face-to-face contact by
committing to a greater frequency of online conversations.
Offer focused support. The University of Chicago’s
Emerging Rural Leaders Program has boosted enrollment by offering
on-campus summer programs and assistance with the application process
for top students from rural and small-town high schools. The university
is also developing a network of these schools and top colleges to
Promote peer support. See if enrolled students from a
rural region can help with rural recruitment or provide informational
programing. Several colleges are working with a national program called
Matriculate that rigorously trains undergraduate college students to be
virtual college advisers.
Keep your commitment. Too often students from rural
areas leave college due to financial, social, or academic pressures.
Recognize they may face different and more challenging stressors, but
also may be less likely to seek support. Some colleges have connected
incoming rural students with upperclassmen from similar circumstances or
the same region. The University of Georgia has a very active and
successful rural students’ group that provides camaraderie and support.
Jim Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.