How college leaders aim to increase rural students’ share of 4-year degrees

"Access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury—it is a necessity to fully participate in today’s society," read a White House press release.

The United States rural population makes up approximately 13.9% of the country. However, only 21% of this group aged 25 or older has earned a bachelor’s degree since 2021, compared to 35.7% of non-rural U.S. adults, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.

Despite signs that rural students complete high school at higher rates, fewer enrolled finish their degrees than their urban and suburban counterparts. Some of the biggest reasons for this are the lack of colleges in rural areas (which have become dubbed “education deserts”), the lack of understanding of the application process and the few technological resources available to rural students to learn new trades.

However, advancements made by the Biden administration and other higher education leaders point to the country’s revitalization in rural student recruitment. Students equipped with today’s digital skillsets can perpetuate innovation in the communities they left behind for college.

“Kids could take that money and go back to their communities in rural areas and spend that there. The spending that happens in rural communities affects everyone so I think there’s a lot of power there,” said Chris Sanders, director of the Rural Technology Fund, according to The Hill. “I think kids from rural areas in tech jobs stand to make a lot of people’s lives better.”

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Federal programs closing the “digital divide”

The USDA announced last week that it is awarding more than $700 million in broadband funding across 19 states to bolster rural connectivity and development across the country.

“High-speed internet is a key to prosperity for people who live and work in rural communities,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “We can ensure that rural communities have access to the internet connectivity needed to continue to expand the economy from the bottom up and middle out and to make sure rural America remains a place of opportunity to live, work, and raise a family.”

Additionally, Under Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Federal Communications Commission has slashed household internet bills, discounted computer purchases, and partnered with internet service providers to service high-speed internet plans under the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). To boost Americans’ enrollment in ACP, the Department of Education partnered with over 300 organizations last week to raise Americans’ awareness of the administration’s commitment to democratizing high-speed internet connection.

“Access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury—it is a necessity to fully participate in today’s society. Still, many students and families go without high-speed internet because of the cost, while others are forced to cut back on other essentials to pay their monthly internet bill,” read the press release.

The Small Town and Rural College Network

Sixteen of some of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities have joined a program dedicated to realizing the potential of small-town and rural students’ education opportunities. Fueled by a $20 million philanthropic investment, the Small Town and Rural Students (STARS) College Network oversees and facilitates institutions’ different efforts to offer personalized programming and mentoring for these disadvantaged students. For example, Columbia University is establishing a fly-in program for STARS-eligible students to access the campus quickly. Financial aid will also be provided.

Other notable schools in this program are CalTech, MIT, Northwestern, University of Chicago, Yale and Vanderbilt.

The Rural Technology Fund

The Rural Technology Fund’s (RTF) official mission is to “help rural students recognize opportunities in technology careers, facilitate pathways to work in the computer industry, and provide equitable access to technology for students with disabilities.”

The organization recognizes that rural students are at a disproportionate disadvantage when entering careers in technology due to the lack of resources. To combat this, RTF has given out over $50,000 worth of scholarships and reached more than 170,000 students in more than 800 schools with educational opportunities in technology. Its goal is 250,000 students.

“Rural people are industrious and resilient and resourceful. And so I’m incredibly optimistic because I think that rural people have had to get things done in all kinds of ways and I think that will continue,” Azano said.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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