Recent years have seen a louder, broader conversation about the need to provide greater opportunities for all American students to attain a K-12 education that truly prepares them for the demands of college and career. This discussion has gone a long way towards spotlighting the real and troubling gaps in educational opportunity between low-income students and their more affluent peers. Often, this opportunity gap is framed as an issue of urban education, highlighting the profound inequities that plague many of America’s urban districts with significant concentrations of poverty. The challenges these districts face are significant, but they don’t necessarily reflect the challenges that all low-income students face on their pathway to higher learning.
A July convening held in Nashville, Tennessee explored the needs of a different group of students: those living in rural, primarily low-income communities. Rural students, administrators, educators and researchers gathered at the conference, organized by the Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) to focus on their communities’ unique challenges. As one rural administrator noted, “We so often focus on the challenges of poverty in urban schools that serve almost entirely students of color, that we forget about both white and brown students living in poverty in our more hidden rural communities.”
Nationally, rural students are roughly 10% less likely than non-rural peers to attend college, are less likely to enroll in four-year colleges, and are more likely to undermatch. Research and reporting have documented a number of unique challenges that rural districts face, including funding disparities, difficulty procuring resources in geographically isolated areas (e.g. broadband internet), and difficulty retaining effective educators. Through a mix of personal storytelling and spotlighting REL-facilitated research and pilot programming, REL spotlighted these barriers and showcased potential solutions to improve rural students postsecondary readiness.
Kentucky high school and college students from the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team presented a report titled “Uncovering the Tripwires to Postsecondary Success,” a synthesis of their listening tour of Kentucky schools. The Prichard Committee, a state education committee-cum-non-profit advocacy organization, supports a team of students to share youth perspectives on education issues in their state.
The students’ report identifies three major ‘tripwires’ that tripped students up on the path to postsecondary education and employment: growing up in a low-income community, hidden costs of preparing for and applying to college, and what they call “college and career unreadiness,” the perception that students are not adequately prepared for the challenges of college and career. Though their report was qualitative and did not list its methodology (sampling procedure, sample size, interview structure, etc.) some quantitative research does suggest the latter conclusion is correct: a 2012 study found that rural students on average scored lower on standardized high school assessments.
Presenters and participants also shared concerns that they believe are significant barriers to readiness in their communities. A pervasive concern, that students do not have sufficient access to the information needed to apply for, enroll and succeed in college, was echoed in both personal stories and in the work of presenters. Others spoke to the challenge of connecting higher learning with students' desire to remain in or return to their communities after graduation. Said one district official, “Many of our students feel their career choices are limited if they want to stay in their communities after graduation—that there is no point in getting a degree in say, art therapy, because no jobs in that field exist in the community. It’s our job to help them imagine what might be possible if they got that degree and brought it home.”
Beyond framing the challenges of preparing students for college and career, presenters also shared opportunities for rural districts to learn from others’ approaches to college and career readiness. Many of these approaches look similar to those gaining popularity nationwide. A number of sessions, for instance, touched on the importance of expanding access to both dual enrollment coursework (college courses open to high school students that allow them to earn college credit during high school) and Advanced Placement coursework in rural schools. Evidence from both rural and non-rural districts suggests that opportunities to earn college credit in high school positively impact students’ likelihood of attending, succeeding in and graduating from a postsecondary institution.
The Niswonger Foundation presented the results of their Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program, which established a college and career consortium in Northeast Tennessee. Over a five year grant period, the Consortium worked to increase students’ (particularly those in rural schools) readiness for the demands of college and career through increasing access to Advanced Placement coursework, online and distance learning courses*, dual enrollment courses, and career and college counseling services. The results of the grant’s term were favorable: access to AP course rose 30.9 percent over the five year period; enrollment in online courses rose 670 percent; enrollment in distance learning courses rose 47.5 percent; participation in dual enrollment increased 109.4 percent; and students had access to nine college and career counselors in their school roughly once to twice a week.
This data does not reflect students’ success with these new resources (e.g. AP scores, dual enrollment course grades, college application and acceptance rates), nor how it has affected their readiness in the long term (e.g. college enrollment, success and completion rates). Expanding access to key readiness resources is the first step to improving students’ achievement, but measuring access alone won’t reveal how much students benefited from those resources.
A rural high school administrator and regional higher education official from Appalachian Ohio also shared perspectives on a small pilot course they created to fill knowledge gaps they believed were responsible for students low attendance and persistence rate in college. The transition course, which enrolled roughly twenty students and met an average of once a month, leveraged a local college professor to teach students everything from how to choose a major to how to read a syllabus. Though the pilot has not been scaled to a size that could effectively evaluated, the anecdotal evidence, at least, was positive: of the roughly twenty students in the transition course, all have enrolled and persisted in a postsecondary program, something that administrators say is exceptional within their community, even for the highest achieving students.
Given the challenge of providing all students with the opportunities they need to succeed in college and career, it is worth sustained attention and research to confirm how well the work of local practitioners is increasing these opportunities for rural learners. As rural initiatives like those presented by REL come of age, there should be rigorous evaluation of their effectiveness, and comprehensive technical support to scale effective solutions.
*Online and distance learning coursework are differentiated by their delivery method: online coursework is conducted entirely online, while distance learning courses use technology to let students participate in courses in other high schools. Of note, distance learning is the only strategy implemented by the Niswonger Foundation that its college and career consortium will not continue past the grant period, citing serious logistical challenges to cross-district distance learning. Some schools report that they will, given the distance learning technology supplied by the i3 grant, continue to provide intra-district opportunities.