Solving the Rural Student Underrepresentation Problem in Higher Ed

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Dr. Leslie Daugherty, Education Designer at Education Design Lab, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss their BRIDGES inaugural cohort and how creating workforce partnership pathways can help solve the rural student underrepresentation problem in higher ed.

The Problem of Rural Student Underrepresentation in Higher Ed

“As a first- year admission counselor for a small private institution that served a large group of rural students,” Leslie said, “I visited a lot of small high schools who rarely saw an admission rep come through their doors.” 

It wasn’t new territory for Leslie. She grew up attending one of those schools herself. So the first year, she made it her mission to visit each and every rural school in her recruitment area. That’s how she first discovered the lack of exposure rural students have to higher education options.

The problems’ aren’t just cultural. Resources also pose a threat. “I just read an article a couple of days ago that was talking about this same topic,” Leslie said. “And they quoted someone who is listed as a ‘science teacher/college counselor.”

That story illustrates the resource capacity available at a lot of our rural secondary institutions. It’s getting worse. Recent research is showing that the pandemic is accelerating the decline in enrollment in rural community colleges.

The problem here goes back to resources. These institutions and learner populations are already historically under invested — even when we’re not in a global pandemic.

Why Online Education Only Can’t Solve the Rural Student Underrepresentation Problem

Why can’t rural students just get their degree online? Problem solved?

Leslie listed three reasons:

1 – Infrastructural barriers

The biggest infrastructural barrier still is reliable broadband to our rural communities. We hear stories all the time about how students and teachers are sitting in parking

lots of fast food restaurants, community colleges, and just about anywhere else

that has open access wifi. This isn’t a solution, right? This is a Bandaid to a huge barrier for rural areas when it comes to internet connection. 

Plus, it’s not just about somebody having internet access. It’s about them having reliable high-speed broadband, which is vital when we talk about online learning or virtual learning environments.

2 – Different learners, different needs

Just like rural isn’t a monolith, online education isn’t a monolith either. So whether we’re designing an in person, online, or hybrid learning experience, we have to consider who the different learners we’re trying to serve are.

Only then can we design experiences that are responsive to their goals, their needs, and their lifestyle. Learners’ intersectional identities are incredibly important, especially with online education. The learning experiences we might design for and with a person in an urban environment might not work with a different person in a different rural community.

3 – Technical training isn’t always available online

A lot of programs still require hands-on technical training that is not yet available or might never be available in an online or virtual environment. During the pandemic, though, we’ve seen some rural communities design innovative hybrid programs, where institutions across the state or region work together to create a curriculum that’s accessible to learners in an online format. Then, students work with the individuals within those communities who can provide the technical hands-on piece.

Barriers to Rural Student Advancement

Like most learners, financial constraints play heavily into most rural students’ decision on whether to extend their education beyond high school. Many rural learners are already working during high school. So the prospect of giving up what might be a full-time job after graduation to start accruing debt doesn’t seem practical.

That’s especially true when there’s not a direct connection on how that certificate, credential, or degree  translates into a job or career. A lot of fear and stigma swirls around the college debt problem, and it’s a real concern for our rural communities. 

Then, there’s the challenge of balancing work with school. Some employers are just not willing to work around school schedules. And rural community colleges do not always have the resources to offer flexible formats for scheduling. 

Another barrier is transportation. Many community colleges are working in service areas where the furthest community might be a hundred miles from the college. Add in winter weather, floods, or impossible mountainous terrain, and these transportation barriers can seem simply overwhelming. Unlike their urban and suburban counterparts, rural learners really can’t rely on public transportation. 

Finally, in addition to these barriers, there’s still a real stigma surrounding community colleges or college in general in some of these areas.

The BRIDGES Rural Project

Education Design Lab partnered with the Ascendium Education Group early last year to start rethinking approaches in rural communities. Together, they developed BRIDGES Rural to build rural innovation and design education strategies. 

The project began last April with extensive research to learn more about rural community colleges, their learners and communities. This summer, the initiative brought together a group of rural practitioners and experts to create early concepts and ideas to explore with communities in 2021. 

“We’ll start with the understand, move to ideation of concepts, and then to prototyping, and testing with our learners,” Leslie explained. “And we’ll end with the pilot.”

These rural communities are extremely resilient and already doing much to create additional opportunities for their learners and their communities. The BRIDGE’s project wants to help build on that momentum. 

“One of the big objectives,” Leslie said, “is how we can harness this knowledge and work so that all institutions and the communities have the chance to learn and grow with their learners.”

Next Steps to Reaching Out to Rural Degree-Seekers

Talk to your learners. Ask them what they need and what their goals are. Listen to them, work with them, and create approaches that are going to impact their needs directly. 

Quantitative data can only tell us so much. We need to start exploring why these learners are perhaps disinterested in our institutions or distrust the systems we’ve created.

Then, institutions really need to take a closer look at the students they’re not serving. Once you explore who you are not serving, you need to go to them and ask, “How can I serve you?”

We can’t simply wait for them to come to us. 


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Leslie Daugherty of Education Design Lab. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.