Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) is at a crossroads.
Physically, nestled along the Mississippi River juncture that connects Missouri, Tennessee, and Illinois. But, also, figuratively, as a regional college serving nearly 10,000 students amid a pandemic that’s made it even harder to reach students from rural areas.
Nationally, public four-year universities saw an enrollment dip of 3.3% from spring 2020 to spring 2021, with those in rural settings seeing even larger drops.
SEMO is a rural-serving institution, and the first Missouri public university to establish a bachelor’s degree in cyberscience (in fact, the Redhawks are the undefeated 10-time state cybersecurity champs).
To try to stem enrollment declines, and better serve the rural students it seeks to attract, the university has tried a number of new tactics.
SEMO was able to increase applications by 13% from 2020 to 2021 by switching its customer relationship management (CRM) tool to Element 451, which combines AI and behavior analytics with automated marketing.
Its application can now be easily completed on a smartphone, and the university can automatically accept students without them submitting transcripts.
That’s allowed SEMO to send students their acceptance and scholarship information in just two days, instead of the 25 days it took previously.
“It means the students we serve aren’t waiting on us to get back to them,” says Lenell Hahn, SEMO’s director of admissions. “And it allows us to break down some of the barriers that make it intimidating or challenging to just get admitted to college.”
Because they are disproportionately poorer and less likely than their peers to have family members who attended college, rural students often need that extra time to plan for college.
The fact that the application is mobile-friendly is a boon for rural students who may have limited home internet options.
“Cost continues to be a rising concern,” Hahn says. “We want to let them know immediately that they will be admitted, and at what cost.”
New tech and tactics can only go so far. Last fall, SEMO did see a drop of 200 students, about a 3.3% dip.
But the damage could have been worse if not for its use of new tech. And while adopting digital outreach efforts, the university hasn’t abandoned its physical outreach.
SEMO still visits high schools in its 26-county region, teaching students how to fill out the FAFSA, the federal application for student aid.
It has two off-shoot campuses in rural areas, with degrees that cater to their needs, from psychology and nursing to agriculture and criminal justice.
All these efforts are especially needed in rural areas, where many are directly entering the workforce rather than take on student debt for a degree they feel might not be worth it.
“What we’re seeing is not just the competition of someone choosing another college but also the competition of somebody not choosing college at all,” Hahn says.
She adds that the university’s economic impact study — which showed students receive back $7.50 in lifetime earnings for every $1 they spend — was commissioned with rural students in mind.
More Rural Higher Ed News
“We need to talk about Rural Gentrification.” What a headline from Ben Sandman in the New Republic. The unreal real estate market we’ve experienced over the last year, plus the rise of remote work has pushed some city-dwellers to purchase in rural areas. That’s led to some creative opportunities, but also rising real estate prices and costs in places that for years haven’t had enough demand to build up their housing supply.
- Why it matters. The new transplants might still have New York City or San Francisco salaries buoying them, but those in rural areas with smaller economies and depressed wages don’t, a pain felt by local college students and professors alike.
Rurality hits Washington. In the nation’s capital, rural issues often get lip service, but rarely the limelight. Credit this administration and Congress for sparking a deluge of rural-related news in their marble hallways as of late, as the announcement of the Biden administration’s Rural Playbook was followed by a bipartisan bill to create a new “Rural Prosperity” office at the White House. For now, it’s sitting in a House subcommittee, but watch for it to come up again ahead of the mid-term elections.
Speaking of D.C., U.S. Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire introduced the Helping Parents Save for College Act, offering a new tax credit and a retirement rollover option that would make contributing to 529 college savings accounts even more appealing to parents trying to prepare for high college costs.
- Why it matters. The New England neighbors have become key partners on a number of legislative efforts, and in particular on rural issues — and this legislation comes on the heels of the $20 million of Rural Postsecondary Economic Development Grant funding they helped get into the 2022 appropriations bill.
“We want to be able to demonstrate the return on their investment.”
Graduate from Anywhere, Including a Desert Island
Rural students can benefit from tech adoptions even when it happens in decidedly not rural places.
Los Angeles Pacific University is based in San Dimas, a rural area at its founding in 1960 that has since been swallowed up in L.A. sprawl.
The online Christian school prides itself on prioritizing student needs, including a number of those who do still live in rural areas.
Because textbooks are a big expense for many, about 16% of its courses use Online Education Resources (OER) that are free to students. Another quarter of its classes don’t require any textbooks or other resources at all.
That would already be a benefit for many low-income rural students, for whom a few hundred dollars can mean the difference between attending and not.
But LAPU goes a step further by being entirely online, a cost-saving tactic that began in 2011 and was hastened by the pandemic, as it transitioned everything from its brick-and-mortar bookstore to student services offices onto the web.
Pretty soon, LAPU hopes to only use textbooks that have an e-book version available.
Mike Wilday, manager of Learning Technology Solutions, says that mentality was born out of the fact that many of their (mostly Hispanic) students are busy, working adults attempting college for the second or third time.
They are a microcosm of the new rural student — that is, the part-time student.
“Two years ago, our CEO came to us and said he wanted to offer our degree on a cell phone,” Wilday says, “so if somebody was stranded on an island just with cell service and our program, they could graduate with one of our degrees.”
Since January 2021, each of its courses has been fully available on mobile devices, making LAPU even more accessible to its 3,000-plus students, of whom more than 20% live outside of Los Angeles County.
Even More Rural Higher Ed News
A tale of two Colorados. Chalkbeat and the Young Invincibles are hosting a virtual event centered around solutions to help close the college graduation gap for students of color and rural students in the Centennial State. Jason Gonzales, a higher ed reporter at Chalkbeat who’s part of the Open Campus local network, has spearheaded much of the reporting driving the conversation, which starts at 4 p.m. MDT on May 18.
Rural Oregon journalism gets a kick-start. The Roundhouse Foundation is funding a number of rural programs across Oregon, from a science story class at the University of Oregon to the Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Impact Journalism Fund and Underscore’s independent journalism program for expanding indigenous coverage. Plus, this upcoming lecture series on “Coexistence and Regeneration” at Pine Meadows Ranch in Sisters, Ore.
Calling rural authors. Rurality across Race and Ethnicity: Considerations for Advancing Higher Education Equity, an upcoming book edited by three leading rural higher ed scholars — Tyler Hallmark, Sonja Ardoin, and Darris Means — is seeking abstracts for book chapters or field notes that “challenge the misleading narrative that rural is white.”
“We want all students to be able to finish what they started,” Wilday says.