For many Americans, completing some form of higher education is a key factor in achieving success and improving one’s quality of life. However, when it comes to educational attainment, Americans aged 25 and over in rural and rural remote areas are much likelier to hold a high school degree as their highest level of educational attainment compared to their urban and suburban peers. And despite outpacing their nonrural peers in early educational achievement, the rural students that do pursue higher education are less likely to complete a 4-year degree. Rural counties make up 80% of the counties in the US with low educational attainment despite rural students only being 22% of the US K-12 student population. Moreover, about 70% of these rural, low educational attainment counties are areas where African Americans alone or Hispanics of any race comprise 20% or more of the total population. This disparity has far-reaching implications, affecting not only individuals but entire communities. In this Bold Note, we delve into college preparation, access, and completion challenges faced by rural students and explore ways philanthropy can play a role in bridging this educational attainment gap.
Rural K-12 students’ challenges
Per a report from the University of Western Alabama, rural K-12 students face many challenges:
- Poverty: In 2017, 22.8% of rural children in the United States were living in poverty compared to 17.7% of urban children. Limited financial resources affect access to learning materials, high-quality preschool, and educational experiences outside the classroom. Additionally, the cost of tuition, books, and other expenses becomes a significant barrier to pursuing a college degree.
- Vocabulary & Literacy: Children in lower-income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words by age three compared to those in more affluent communities. This vocabulary gap persists from infancy and can impact language processing and academic success.
- Health: Access to affordable fresh food is a major problem in rural communities, affecting nutrition and cognitive development. Rural southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, have high rates of childhood food insecurity. Mental health services are also an issue, with many non-metropolitan counties lacking psychiatrists or specialized child psychologists.
- Internet and Technology Access: 24% of rural adults are not able to access high-speed internet. Lack of reliable broadband and technology tools, such as laptops and tablets, create a “homework gap” that hinders their children from completing assignments outside of school.
- Educator Burnout: Rural schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers due to limited local talent pools and lower pay scales. The workload can be demanding, and teachers that move to rural areas may face challenges assimilating into close-knit communities.
- College-Ready Curricula: Rural schools often face challenges in offering a diverse range of rigorous courses, limiting rural students’ preparedness for college and their ability to compete with their nonrural peers.
- Exposure to Higher Education: Geographic isolation from universities and colleges makes it difficult for rural students to access higher education opportunities. Lack of transportation options and limited availability of local institutions hinder their ability to enroll and complete a degree. Additionally, the reluctance to leave rural communities and limited understanding of financial aid options and college application processes pose challenges. On-campus experiences may also differ significantly, leading to feelings of isolation and difficulty adjusting.
How Funders Can Address These Challenges
For funders who prioritize improving college going and completion rates, there are a number of proven and promising strategies:
- Improve Vocabulary and Literacy: Initiatives targeting early childhood education in rural areas can help address the vocabulary gap. Providing resources such as high-quality preschool programs and promoting early literacy interventions can create a strong foundation for future academic success.
- Addressing Student Health: Considering the importance of good nutrition on children’s cognitive development and performance in school, collaborative efforts involving schools, communities, and policymakers can work to increase food security and promote healthy lifestyles.
- Supporting Mental Health Services: Funders can support efforts to increase the availability of mental health services in rural areas, such as establishing partnerships between schools and mental health professionals or making telehealth platforms available to connect students with mental health resources.
- Enhancing Technology Access: Access to high-speed internet and necessary technology tools, such as laptops and tablets, is crucial for students to complete assignments and participate in remote learning. Rural grant programs can provide funding to teachers for innovative projects aimed at bridging the technology gap in rural schools. Funders can also play a role in lobbying state legislatures to invest funds in expanding reliable broadband into rural areas.
- Supporting Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Funders can encourage rural education policymakers to offer competitive salaries in addition to providing support systems for teachers and leveraging technology for collaboration and professional development to attract and retain qualified educators in rural areas.
- Increasing Access to Early Credit Programs: Investments in early college high schools, dual credit, and other forms of early credit can better prepare students for college success, expose them to institutes of higher education, and increase their confidence in their ability to succeed in those institutions.
- Improving Math Proficiency: Often times, lack of math readiness can be a major barrier to college success. Funders can invest in high school programs that better align with college standards and ensure that students are ready to move into college-level math courses.
- Funding College Access and Success Initiatives: Building awareness about the benefits of higher education and providing financial support to rural students can help address enrollment barriers. Scholarships, mentorship programs, and targeted college recruitment strategies can help students overcome financial constraints and make informed decisions about their future. Investments in this area can be made in nonprofit organizations that help students gain admission to college or in school districts to increase their college counseling capacity.
- Investing in Rural-Serving Higher Education Institutions: Funders can make grants directly to regional four-year colleges, state university extension programs, community colleges, and technical colleges to build their capacity to recruit, provide scholarships to, and better serve rural students
The educational disparities between rural and urban areas merit bold and targeted philanthropic interventions. It is essential for funders, organizations, and policymakers to recognize the unique needs of rural students and invest in initiatives that not only improve the conditions of K-12 education in rural America but also promote equitable access to higher education. By implementing innovative solutions and fostering collaboration between colleges, K-12 schools, communities, nonprofits, and policymakers, philanthropy can be a part of creating a brighter future for rural students, ensuring they have the tools and support necessary to achieve their full potential.