On a March morning a little over four years ago, Clayton Land rushed into his high school to share the news with his favorite teacher, Mr. Sayre.

Clayton had just been accepted into Yale University.

Beaming with excitement, Mr. Sayre sent out an email to all of the faculty and staff of Anderson County High School in Kentucky. The news spread so fast that by the end of the first period every person in the building learned of Land’s accomplishment.

“Everyone was coming up to me in the hallways between classes, my teachers were all saying stuff, hugging me, being excited,” said Land, who graduated from Yale University in May. “Truly one of the best days of my life.”

Getting into Yale, a university with a less than 5% acceptance rate, is no small feat for anyone. But for Land, who grew up in the rural unincorporated community of Alton, Kentucky, it seemed he accomplished the impossible.

Clayton and other members of the Rural Student Alliance at Yale (RSAY) attend a pumpkin carving event. RSAY was founded in 2019 and serves as a community for rural students to connect and promote rural identity on campus (Photo courtesy of Clayton Land).

“I was the first in my family to go to college,” Land said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “And so that was a really exciting thing, being able to jump up and climb the ladder all the way to Yale.”

When Clayton came to campus he expected to only meet people from places like New York City and Houston and Miami, but he found he wasn’t the only rural student on Yale’s campus. 

In recent years, the term “rural” has become a buzzword within the college admissions community, including selective universities like Yale where strategic rural recruitment efforts are picking up traction.

A Rural Recruiter

When Corinne Smith, associate director of admissions at Yale University, began working at Yale admissions seven years ago she noticed the office had no structure to recruit rural students. She aimed to change that.

Smith started with a visit to the Appalachian mountains in Eastern Kentucky.

“[At] Yale and in the Ivy League, I couldn’t find anyone that had done [outreach in the region],” Smith said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “I [went] down there to see what was going on and they were so excited.”

During the trip, Smith began to see the power of rural recruitment.

“I went to these schools and they brought their entire senior class to meet with me because no one from our type of institutions went down there,” Smith said. “That was really eye-opening for me and that kicked off kind of a pipeline for us in Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee that we’ve been building ever since.” 

Smith started brainstorming how to approach rural recruitment and admissions on a larger scale. 

At the time, the admissions office mainly focused on students from urban and suburban schools, where they could recruit more students from a single outreach event. There was no structure for understanding or evaluating rural applicants, Smith said. 

For starters, no one in the office really knew much about the kinds of activities that might show up in a rural student’s extracurriculars: 4-H or FFA, clubs that offered major leadership and development opportunities for rural youth. 

The few rural applications that did make their way into the Yale admissions committee were oftentimes met with excitement and curiosity.

“[Rural applicants are] just so different than the rest of the state or region and exciting and interesting,” Smith said. “Sometimes it would be a kid that grew up on a farm, sometimes it would be a student that was driving an hour and a half to their high school, or leading FFA nationally right from where they lived.” 

Sure, the Yale admissions office reads and accepts applications from the children of U.S. senators, Nobel prize winners, and powerful business people.

Sure, these students include Stephen Colbert and Jeff Bezos’s children, Olympic ice skater Nathan Chen, and even President Obama’s daughter, Sasha.

But do any of those folks know how to drive a tractor with a 24-row planter behind it, making the necessary mathematical calculations and adjustments to ensure a bountiful crop? 

Clayton served as president of the rural student alliance during the pandemic, where the community planned activities like the RSAY hike here in the fall of 2020 (Photo courtesy of Clayton Land).

Can any of them walk through a nearby forest, identifying the various flora and fauna, avoiding the harmful plants, and foraging the helpful ones for supper?

Probably not. But admission officers find these rural activities impressive, and potentially even more interesting than thousands of applicants who were president of their model UN team or who took AP physics.

In her second year at the admissions office, Smith got an idea. 

“What if I read all of the rural [applications]?” Smith said. “I could see within that pool, who [were] the strongest [candidates] over time. I actually was able to see what are the markers of a successful transition to Yale for rural students.”

Smith wanted the committee to understand that rural students didn’t need to take AP courses, two years of Spanish, and two years of calculus (which aren’t offered at many rural schools) classes to succeed at Yale. 

To Smith’s knowledge, she was the first admissions officer in the U.S. to individually review all the rural students in a school’s application pool.

Smith said Yale’s campus is enriched by the diversity rurality brings to the university. Today there are at least 80 to 100 incoming rural and small-town students enrolling at Yale each year, Smith said. That would constitute about 5% of the 1,786 freshmen who entered Yale in 2021, according to the Yale website. 

For selective universities, Smith has become a leader in rural recruitment, she said. When other admissions officers ask her how they can increase their rural recruitment, she points them to the start of the puzzle: identifying rural students. 

“I can tell you what to do in recruitment,” Smith said. “But I’m first going to ask you, what are you doing to identify rural students in your pool? How do you know that they’re applying? How do you tackle them? How do you know how many are applying? How many are admitted? How many matriculate?”

If universities aren’t identifying who rural students are, there is no way to know if their recruitment efforts are successful, Smith said.

Most schools only use the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to identify students’ rurality. The system is flawed in part because it identifies students by the location of the school, not students’ homes.

Some rural students drive 30 minutes to a hub-school classified as “suburban,” though they live in rural areas. Other students are attending private boarding schools that qualify students as a “fringe rural,” even if they are from New York City, Smith said.

The NCES data is also just outdated, Smith said. 

“Places that may have been fringe rural 10 or 15 years ago, are now part of the suburban sprawl,” Smith said. 

Smith’s current solution: Google. While she understands she is using her personal judgment, she is able to adjust NCES data to avoid categorizing students as rural when they are attending boarding schools and living in newly developed suburban communities. 

Although things like individual Google searches and distant trips to rural communities take more time and money than urban and suburban recruitment, Smith encourages her peers to stay engaged with schools.

Corinne Smith, associate director of admissions at Yale University. (Photo submitted)

It’s important for Smith’s peers to understand that spending time and money at a rural school might get them one student application, or none at all, but it can be a long-term play to create a pipeline in that school or region, she said. 

“I spent five years working with a school in the Upper Peninsula [of Michigan], explaining to their counselors that their kids were allowed to be in our applicant pool,” Smith said. “And after five years, we finally have gotten an admit from them. It takes a long time, but it is worth it.”

Smith encourages rural students to embrace their background and life experience in applications.

“Students who work in rural areas, or have family responsibilities, or other things, make that student a really valued community member in our mind,” Smith said. “I really wish rural students understood how much we value those assets and that perspective and didn’t view them as an obstacle or barrier cause it’s actually really exciting for us.”

Purdue’s “Boots on the Ground”

Recruiting rural students is nothing new at Indiana’s land-grant school, Purdue University in West Lafayette. Admissions officers at the public university focus their rural recruitment efforts on in-state students.

The university’s effort to reach rural schools is built into the foundation of the college, said A.J. Frigo, former assistant director of admissions at Purdue. 

“Rural recruitment wasn’t seen as this big buzz,” he said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “It was just the way we’ve always done things as a land-grant institution.”

Land-grant universities like Purdue offer degrees like veterinary science, crop science, and agricultural engineering that can attract some rural students who have aspirations within the agricultural industry. 

Even though the university offers programs focused on the rural economy, it still has trouble connecting with some students. 

Some rural students perceive Purdue as just a basketball school. Or they might think they aren’t smart enough, that it’s not worth taking on debt, that their family and community are more important than going to college, Frigo said. A single recruiter visiting a high school isn’t enough to overcome what Frigo considers to be misconceptions.

“One random guy coming in with a Purdue polo [shirt], a pamphlet, and even a free T-shirt or brochure is not going to sway their opinion,” he said.

The key is putting boots on the ground and gaining their trust, Frigo said.

“Show up at every [college and career] event they have,” Frigo said. “Consult with community organizations, faith-based organizations, whatever is making sense for that Community. You have to find it and you have to allow them to get your name in their trust. And that’s not an easy process.”

From there, you also need to help students realize how impressive they are, all of their hard work in classes, in activities, and in their jobs, Frigo said.

It takes one-on-one work to get students into their classrooms.

“What I hope for rural recruitment – for anyone that’s partaking – is just keep the mantra of ‘as long as you got one [admission], you’re doing it right,’” Frigo said. “If you can just get one rural kid to [college], you’ve changed their lives. You may have changed their families’ lives.”

Community-Based Approaches

Peggy Jenkins, the founder of Palouse Pathways, moved to rural Idaho when her son was 5 years old. As her son was preparing to apply to college, she was unable to find any resources to help him through the process.

Jenkins said that just wasn’t the culture of the communities.

“Although everyone was very interested in their children’s success, they didn’t really understand some of the ins-and-outs and best practices [in applying to college],” she said.

Jenkins stepped up and began sharing information about things like the PSAT and scholarships through a parent group in the school.

Jenkins continued this work and founded Palouse Pathways in 2013 to encourage and advise students in the college application process and to share resources with families in rural Idaho and Washington. 

The volunteer organization works directly with schools across the region, augmenting the efforts of high-school counselors who may not have the capacity to offer individual college advice. 

Palouse Pathways interacts differently with each school, giving them the unique support they require, Jenkins said. 

Smaller districts don’t have a lot of students going to college, Jenkins said. “If some kid wants to go to the East Coast for college, that’s really not in their [the school’s] wheelhouse and it’s not as high of a priority as serving real immediate needs [of other students]. That’s where we step in.”

Other districts may only require more targeted support like SAT prep programs, Jenkins said.

But the biggest goal for Palouse Pathways is reaching students and families at an earlier age, and supporting them throughout their K-12 education, Jenkins said.

“I feel it is important to start outreach pretty early,” Jenkins said. “Because I think that some of these kids actually do have big aspirations at a young age and then they’re not supported … they’re not validated … so their dream died.” 

Palouse Pathways also connects aspiring college students with each other, to promote a college-going culture. 

“To me, the secret to success for working with a group of rural students is helping them build relationships,” Jenkins said. “You might be the only kid at your school with [college] aspirations, but getting together with other people…who can validate your aspirations is nice.”

Similar to A.J. Frigo and Purdue University’s rural recruitment approach, Jenkins and Palouse Pathways focuses on the individual successes of its students.

“People call me all the time asking ‘how do you reach rural students?’”Jenkins said. “You know, it’s one-by-one. And if you don’t have somebody on the ground to do it, they’re very hard to reach.”

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