Lessons from Rural Communities: Navigating the College-Going Process in A Virtual K-12 World

Every community faces barriers preventing students from going to college, but the challenges our rural communities have faced year after year may provide guidance for how we better serve all students – no matter where they live – during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National College Attainment Network’s blog, Rural Student Success Resources: Facts and Figures, 20 percent of the U.S. population resided in rural areas in 2010, and in 2014-15 rural communities contained 28 percent of all schools.

But before we take a closer look at what rural communities can teach us, we need to ask ourselves “what is ‘rural’?” The term “rural” can have different meanings to different people, organizations, and government agencies. Rural can mean: fewer people living in a specific area, significant distance between homes and schools for some students, less access to some services, courses, and/or activities. The multiple definitions show how multidimensional the concept of rural communities can be. What one state or region considers rural can look very different from another state or region, even when comparing rural communities within the same state. 

How important are technology and online resource access to rural students?

If we, as a society, didn’t know it before, I think we’re all learning now just how important technology and access to internet connectivity is for rural students. We’re also learning just how prevalent and where those limitations are. The inequities in what that means for students are being highlighted. I read the other day that internet access is a basic utility now, but it’s one that a significant minority of people in our country still don’t have. It is believed that around 162.8 million people are not using the internet at broadband speeds and 33 million Americans don’t use the internet at all.

What resources exist to support rural students during their college search?

Not unlike their urban and suburban peers, rural students rely heavily on school staff for information and assistance during their college search. Informal surveys we’ve conducted in the past suggest that students go to their counselors and teachers first, followed closely by their parents and older friends who’ve been through the process before. In other words, people are a primary resource; so is the internet –college websites, but also college search engines, social media, third-party reviews, etc. Many schools still maintain file drawers and folders with college brochures. These continue to be a resource for students, though to a lesser degree.

Also, I would encourage you to check out the conversation from a recent #RuralKidsMatter Twitter chat that discussed how to equitably support the remote learning needs of rural students.

What opportunities exist for rural students to connect with mentors?

Mentoring can look different from community to community. In Oregon, we have a statewide mentoring program to help students access training and education beyond high school. While not the only mentoring options available, they’ve been a valuable resource for our students – many rural schools participate in the program. I would encourage students to ask their counselors for help finding a mentor/mentoring program. Seek out college access organizations in their community or state to determine if a mentoring program exists.

Considering social distancing practices in place right now, mentoring can happen over video chats, texting, and dropping off or mailing resources to a student’s home. Also, check out Strive for College for a free, national online mentoring option for aspiring college students.

If asked, what would rural students say they need more of in order to fully plan their college search/journey?

When I talk with educators in rural schools about this, their biggest wish is to be able to connect their students with college staff and students. At the top of their wish list is getting students onto campus. They also appreciate when admissions and financial aid staff come out to their schools. Both of these activities are more challenging and happen with less frequency in our rural schools, however it doesn’t mean they aren’t important. We need to find other ways to help students make the same connections their urban and suburban peers are building.

What can college admissions staff and K-12 counselors do to help students make those connections and research the best college match and fit?

I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you about something we’ve tried.

Two years ago, we piloted virtual visits between admissions representatives and groups of rural high school students. Admissions representatives spend a good portion of the fall months crisscrossing their state (and, in many cases, the country) visiting students in their high schools. Often, these are an opportunity for students to meet in a small group with a college staff member. They may get a brief presentation but then have an opportunity to ask questions and begin building a relationship – maybe even with the person who will ultimately read their application. Some high schools in the country receive so many requests for these visits they have to turn colleges away. We surveyed many of our rural Oregon schools and found that, on average, they were receiving five or fewer requests. We wanted to try to mimic this type of experience in a virtual platform. That pilot wasn’t perfect, but we learned a lot!

The most important lesson was one of patience. Because they didn’t have a lot of experience with these types of visits, schools hadn’t built them into the daily schedule as they are in many urban and suburban high schools. In some cases, college and career specialists had to see them in action to understand the benefits so they could convince their colleagues to allow students out of class for a visit – or even to convince students to participate. That’s a process that can take time. However, I suspect that after this spring, jumping on a video call to have a conversation won’t feel quite as novel. But even two years ago, figuring out how to use the technology was a hurdle for many of our schools, and when it did work, connectivity wasn’t always great. Students, counselors, and admissions representatives exercised a lot of patience to work through those issues.

Ultimately, the lesson was – when they work, they really work. They’re not a perfect replacement for in-person visits, just as remote learning isn’t a perfect replacement for students and teachers being together in a classroom. However, our pilot taught us some best practices that help ensure that they do open doors for students to discover new colleges, build relationships with college staff, and feel more connected to their college search and application process.

Adrienne Enríquez is a program manager for Oregon GEAR UP, responsible for coordinating statewide initiatives and strategic partnerships including Oregon Goes to College. Prior to joining the Oregon GEAR UP team, Adrienne served as the director of multicultural recruitment in two college admissions offices, was a high school math teacher, and ran an afterschool program for middle school students. Adrienne holds a B.A. from Grinnell College and an M.A. from the University of Miami. She has served on the Board of Directors for the Oregon College Access Network, as a member of Portland Public School’s Citizens Budget Review Committee, and the Oregon ACT Council. She was named ACT’s Oregon Postsecondary Education Champion in 2018. When she’s not thinking about how to help students plan for their future, she’s using sticks and string to keep friends and family warm.