Rural students are more likely to graduate from high school than their urban peers — but they are less likely to pursue higher education and far more likely to drop out of college. Even more disturbing is the fact that this gap between rural and urban youth has widened over the last 20 months due to the impacts of COVID.
Several factors are exacerbating this situation. A root cause of inequality in many rural communities is the absence of colleges nearby, which constrains educational opportunities for rural students. The farther young people live from a college, the less likely they are to attend one. Rural students are also isolated by limited access to Internet connectivity: Today, rural Americans are 15 times less likely to have broadband access than their urban counterparts.
And despite the correlation between education and jobs, rural America remains distrustful of postsecondary education. Rural residents see college costs as unchecked and college degrees as pushing young people out of their hometowns. This has conspired to make rural residents wary of higher education, which helps explain why only 33% of rural dwellers believe that a four-year degree is worthwhile.
After working with schools for more than three decades and helping 100,000 underserved youth attain degrees, we’d like to offer a handful of tips from our new book, Rural America’s Pathways To College And Career (authored by Dalton with contributions from Tejeda), for anyone who wants to help rural students get to college and progress down the pathway to the workplace. While these tips target those wanting to help rural children, they work equally well for urban and even suburban communities.
Tip: You don’t need to know everything about higher education and the workplace. You just need to stay up-to-date on the issues.
The college admissions and financial aid landscape is changing faster than ever, so it’s essential that those who guide rural students toward college have accurate, up-to-date knowledge as well as a way to stay current as higher education and the job market evolve. Our organization, CFES Brilliant Pathways, offers webinars and podcasts each week, which we call “Virtual Opportunities,” on trends and changes in college and the workplace. You can follow this content on our website and also stay current by reading education blogs and following news stories.
Tip: Show students what’s possible.
At schools across the United States, millions of students, most from low-income households with limited college and career exposure, sit on what we call “the bubble”: They’re qualified for college, but they don’t get the kind of college-and-career-readiness support they need to make it to college. You can make the larger world and its possibilities real to rural students by becoming a mentor and sharing your own pathway to college and the workplace as well as by connecting students to your network so that they meet other professionals and learn about their personal journeys. We need to expose rural students to evolving and current careers that can provide them with a livable wage, then help them understand the type of postsecondary study they’ll need to develop the skills and knowledge for these jobs.
Tip: Nurture and celebrate each student’s interests and ambition.
Vibrant communities require 21st-century jobs and a skilled workforce, and this requires a pipeline filled with college- and career-ready youth. Once a student develops an interest in a particular career or set of careers, introduce them to professionals from that field. CFES partners with hundreds of businesses and corporations that expose our students to new opportunities in the workforce. For example, when a team from Southwest Airlines visited schools in the Adirondacks to talk with students about aeronautical careers, they discovered that many students were interested in becoming mechanics, but because of their limited exposure, they thought this only meant working on trucks and tractors. The Southwest volunteers told the rural students about their need to hire mechanics to work on airplanes in positions that paid more than $100,000 annually. Several of these rural students are now working at nearby airports. While onsite job shadowing and internships are ideal ways to nurture career interests, geographic constraints and other factors can make this challenging. You can provide this exposure virtually by setting up Zoom meetings to introduce students to former classmates in a range of careers. Many jobs of tomorrow will be in STEM, so it’s critical that we expose students to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics sector.
Tip: Help rural students identify and develop the essential skills they need to succeed in their day-to-day lives.
At CFES, our most successful alumni — those who move out of poverty, attend and graduate college on time, and succeed in the workplace — are not necessarily those with the highest test scores or best grades, but those with competencies such as grit and teamwork. We have identified six skills (and we know that there are many more) as critical to helping youth succeed. We refer to these competencies as the “Essential Skills™.” They include: goal setting, teamwork, leadership, networking, perseverance, and agility. There are many ways to help students develop these skills. For example, you can talk to students about the skills that helped you move down the educational and workplace pathway. Or, go to our website to find interactive exercises that allow students to define, practice, and then discuss these skills and how they can be applied to real-life situations. Game play is also a great opportunity to connect abstract content to actual behavior changes. Postgame reflection and discussion enable students to draw connections and build on skills.
Tip: Step up and partner with your school or a local youth-centered organization.
Reach out to a school or nonprofit such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or 4-H and offer to meet with students. Adult volunteers can help students navigate admission and financial aid deadlines, understand how to pay for college, complete applications, find internships, and meet other college and career readiness challenges.