A consortium of public and private colleges and universities have come together to better address how to attract and retain rural students. 

The STARS College Network is bringing together 16 higher education institutions to share best practices for rural and small-town students and offer opportunities for students to experience the colleges up close. 

According to data from STARS, of around 59 million people living in rural areas—9.7 million are high school students. 

Nearly all say that it is important to continue their education beyond high school, but less than one-third of 19 to 24-year-olds from rural areas are enrolled in college. That’s compared to 42% from metro areas, according to the STARS website

“Having rural and small-town students on their campus is incredibly important to have the perspectives to have those conversations in the classroom, to have that representation,” said Majorie Betley, senior associate director of Admissions at the University of Chicago and the acting executive director of the STARS College Network. “It’s 20% of the United States. And they’re severely underrepresented on most college campuses. So that was part of the impetus was our college campuses don’t represent what the United States really represents, in many ways.”

While the network launched early in April 2023, the idea had been planted in fall 2022, Betley said. 

She said that many of the institutions had been supporting rural and small-town students for many years, but over time they have learned some best practices. For example, when recruiting or setting up travel to campuses, sending an email was not a great way to reach the target audience, she said. 

“Sending a postcard or a magnet or something physical was a much better way to reach these students and their families especially,” she told the Daily Yonder.

Once on campus, many of the institutions have Rural Student Alliances.

“They’re student-run organizations, but they’re closely tied with our efforts like these are relationships that we’ve built with these students starting back when they were in high school,” Betley said. “Now they’re on our campuses… and I think relationship building is a really important part of that. It kind of is a unique aspect of what we’re trying to do. Like we’re building relationships with students. And we’re engaging them much earlier in high school.”

Betley said the number of rural students at the University of Chicago has grown from about 3% at baseline to 9% currently. 

They also realize the importance of returning home after college, if that is what is desired. At the University of Chicago, Betley helps students find internships and other programs.

“We want students to have the opportunity to leave and then return if that’s what they want to do,” she said. 

Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, told the Daily Yonder the diversity in students on campus is important. 

“Our student surveys, diversity is always one of what they tell us is their favorite part about Yale,” he said. “Our faculty really value teaching diverse students. And we have found that bringing students here from the widest possible array of backgrounds, neighborhood backgrounds, family backgrounds, high school backgrounds, can all be really powerful for our campus community. And so we really want to work with other like-minded institutions to raise awareness of the opportunities that Yale has for students from all over the country.”

He said people think Yale only accepts one type of student, and that perception needs to change.

“We care about rural and small town students,” he said. “We admit rural small town students…And we want to break those assumptions in our communications.”

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