A glimpse of Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont (Courtesy Champlain College)

Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: Postcards: College advising adds some new faces.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: Students at rural campuses feel the safest.
  • 03: In the Sticks: How coaches can help rural enrollment.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: Oregon and New Hampshire get federal help.

01: Postcards

Rural students are the least likely to attend college or earn a degree — a problem exacerbated in recent years by persistent shortages of both rural educators and rural guidance counselors

“The pandemic has pushed college and career readiness to the back burner, if it’s even on the stove at all anymore,” says Rick Dalton, the CEO and President of CFES Brilliant Pathways.

Short for “College for Every Student,” his New England-based nonprofit trained more than 2,500 College and Career readiness advisers in 2021, including teachers and parents, secretaries and coaches, school bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

The concept: If rural areas can’t staff up to address counselor shortages, they can at least equip their current educators with the knowledge they need to offer counsel. 

“It takes a village,” Dalton says. “Let’s make sure the village has the knowledge it needs.”

These “quasi-counselors,” as Dalton calls them, attend four 30-minute virtual courses, learning about everything from FAFSA completion to nontraditional careers within growing fields like health care.

They graduate with a professional certificate from Middlebury College and have continued access to online resources with the latest information about college and financial aid.

That education is especially valuable when you consider that only about 25% of the counselors at high schools have received any professional development around college advising.

“Everybody who has contact with our kids needs to be delivering that message,” Dalton says. “You can do it: Here’s how.” 

Dalton has ambitious goals to expand the program, hoping to train 50,000 advisers in the next five years — a goal that’s been made more attainable by the widespread adoption of virtual instruction during the pandemic. 

When Dalton first began his work, a lot of the national focus was on the needs of students in urban areas, where 65% of the students that CFES Brilliant Pathways come from.

As of late, though, his organization has increased need with rural students who are getting “the short end of the stick,” as Dalton says. 

Rural students graduate from high school at slightly higher rates than their urban or suburban peers, but it remains challenging to get the resources needed to help them take that next step.

“People want to spend money where there is a significant density of students, and where they think they can have better bang for your buck,” says Dalton, who knows a few things about rural challenges himself. 

The Essex, New York native’s regular commute includes a 20-minute ferry ride across Lake Champlain and then a half hour drive — hardly abnormal for him or other upstate New Yorkers whose work often centers around Middlebury or Burlington in Vermont.

“Just to let you know how rural life is here,” Dalton quips, while taking our Zoom meeting from the front seat of his pickup truck.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Hunger pangs in Utah. An anti-hunger nonprofit found that 2 in 5 students at Utah colleges experienced food insecurity in 2021, including nearly half of the survey’s students of color. Rural students were about 7 percentage points more likely to report food insecurity than their urban peers — 44.5% to 37.4% — with female students and family caregivers reporting higher rates than others.
  • From rural ranch life to a doctorate. That’s the path Ana Guerrero took, after growing up in a trailer on a central California ranch with her Mexican immigrant parents. Participating in the ENLACE outreach program, which works to demystify the college entry process by providing mentors to Latino high schoolers, convinced her as a senior to pursue higher education. After starting at community college, Guerrero was able to earn a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a doctorate from UC Santa Barbara.
  • Rural students feel the most safe. 55 percent of rural students felt very safe on campus, more than their urban or suburban peers. Those numbers were particularly surprising considering that rural college respondents were more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ compared to the full sample, according to the recent Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey.
Dr. Ana Y. Guerrero with her parents Patricia and Isaias at UC Santa Barbara’s commencement ceremonies.

03: In the Sticks

Counseling is taking on new forms in other ways, and not just for high schoolers.

A number of organizations have formed in recent years to provide college coaching to nontraditional students.

One such company is ReUp, which specializes in helping people who have stopped out of college to finish their degrees.

Most of these students are adult learners over 25, now working full-time jobs. 

Working with its own 500,000-person database and information provided by partner schools and states, ReUp reaches out and provides free coaching to those still interested in earning their degrees.

There are 110 million Americans that could have access to greater economic opportunity right in the areas they live with more education, says Terah Crews, the CEO of ReUp. 

The need is particularly great in rural areas.

“Anecdotally, we see rural working adults have some of the greatest opportunity for financial security growth — and they are being left behind the most in that journey,” Crews says.

I’ve been surprised in my rural reporting to discover that there are vast resources available to rural students, particularly low-income students, to help them earn degrees … if they know about them.

That’s the gap programs like ReUp can fill, a challenge colleges are struggling to address with limited marketing, recruitment, and advising budgets.

In four years, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania has been able to re-enroll 133 students through ReUp, says Thomas Fletcher, vice president for enrollment management .

ReUp doesn’t charge the students it coaches. Instead, it charges the school, and each contract is different: for Bloomsburg, it charges 28% of the student’s tuition each semester, then 37% their graduating semester. 

“The decision, in my mind, was pretty simple,” Fletcher says. “Do we want 72% of tuition and revenue, or zero of it?”

ReUp has roughly 50 partners, a number of which are rural serving, including places like Arkansas Technical University and Texas State University. 

Most schools work with ReUp to increase enrollment across majors, but some focus on just one area. And in some cases, states will contract with ReUp to try to fill a specific workforce need. 

That raises the question of whether ReUp might steer students into the degrees or professions that their partner institutions are paying for, regardless of whether it’s in that student’s best interests.

However, Crews says they work to match students with programs for which they have already completed some credits.

That means the student has already shown interest in that profession — and that it would be more affordable for the student to try to finish that degree, rather than completely restart on a different track.

“These are populations that most institutions won’t even touch, because they say it’s way too hard,” Crews says.

04: Planting Seeds

  • Behavioral Health Incentive reaches rural Colorado. The Colorado Department of Higher Education approved $5M in grants to pay the tuition of rural-low-income students pursuing eligible behavioral health degrees and certificates at five partner institutions, with hopes of increasing the state’s mental health workforce. 
  • White Mountains receive $1.2M federal grant. Federal lawmakers awarded the funds — which will support programs improving college access for rural students in northern New Hampshire — to White Mountains Community College and Campus Compact for New Hampshire. 
  • Eastern Oregon receives federal funding, too. Two Oregon colleges, Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, also received $1.2M each in federal college access grants, which they’ll use to hire regional engagement specialists and kickstart new outreach programs.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.