More often than not I am faced with a student that says, “I’m poor. I can’t go to college.” I always smile and say, “This is the best time in your life to be poor.” A large number of rural students believe that college is completely out of reach. It’s too far or too expensive; they aren’t smart enough; nobody in their family went to college or supports them going; and the list goes on and on. Rural students do not see billboards promoting local colleges, they often do not have a computer at home, and most definitely do not have high speed internet. How else do you get information about college? Relationships with people who have had a college experience. Unfortunately, coming from rural communities you do not always have people with this information.
Where do we start? Information is the key to changing the college-going culture of a community. Once students and families are informed that college is affordable, a weight is lifted. The next step is to understand all of the options that are available. Sometimes, students from rural communities may not have a strong ACT SCORE because of their limited access to ACT prep and tutoring programs. It is the role of the college access professional to advocate for capable students where the ACT does not accurately reflect the student’s academic ability. Additionally, we are fortunate in Tennessee to have a wide variety of postsecondary opportunities such as technology centers, community colleges, and universities. It is the most wonderful feeling in the world to see a student’s eyes light up when he or she has found the “right fit.” College access programs help students find that fit.
Students from rural communities do not always seek out the help that is needed to obtain a postsecondary education. Often times, the goal seems so far out of reach that the student may overlook the opportunity all together. Reaching out to students during high school is as important as continuing to support them throughout their postsecondary experience.
What’s next? I would personally like to see a bigger push across the country to recognize the road blocks for rural students and formulate a plan designed specifically to address these roadblocks. I think you will find many similarities between barriers faced by students whether they live in an urban environment or a rural community. However, these barriers cannot be addressed by the same strategy. College access and success is definitely a hot topic right now. With the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative receiving a $40 million Race to the Top Grant, I believe there is a wonderful opportunity for rural college access and success to take the spotlight.