Students from a rural background have a lot to offer the modern university, and big institutions are just waking up to the enormous potential of this under-recruited demographic.
The sheer number of high school students overlooked by regular recruitment practices makes it worth sitting up and paying attention. In the US, rural students successfully graduate high school in roughly the same proportion as suburban students, yet far fewer make the leap to a university education.
In China, the Ministry of Education raised the enrollment target for rural students from 10,000 to 50,000 between 2012 and 2015. This is indicative of a wellspring of unrealized promise.
But the benefits for universities and students alike go far beyond numbers. Students with a rural background can bring a range of new skills and socio-political perspectives to an academic community. As we have witnessed with recent political developments in the US and elsewhere, societies are becoming more polarized than they have been in a long time. Simply put, rural recruitment can be a diversity strategy that benefits everyone.
Evolving attitudes and advances in communication technology are changing the game for universities in countries with particularly hard to reach rural areas - such as China, the States, and Australia. These institutions have traditionally found it resource-intensive to connect with students in remote schools, but are utilizing mobile technology and co-operation with local colleges in an attempt to build bridges.
If students themselves are learning that life in a big city or campus university can be worthwhile and affordable, it is a process that benefits from the effort and imaginative thinking of recruitment officers and their colleagues. Leaving home to study for four years is not always a clear choice for those from a rural background. They may (quite rightly) feel that they would be studying for jobs that aren't prevalent in their home region. Some institutions have initiated partnerships with rural schools and colleges: for example the University of Illinois’ Pathway Program, which gives undergrads a chance to complete one or two years of their degree in a local context.
If a student is the first in the family to consider university, the research, application, and scholarship processes may seem bewildering. And for a teenager, the thought of leaving the people they’ve grown up with to study among urban and suburban undergrads with different socio-political background may be cause for hesitation. On the other hand, increased competition from big agriculture in rural regions means that farming families are keen to improve and diversify their business skills. Introduce a family to the benefits and accessibility of postsecondary education early on, and universities can begin to open minds long before big decisions need to be made. Similarly, creating and promoting programs aimed at benefiting rural communities, like rural healthcare and legal studies degrees, can familiarize students from these regions with the career and service potential of higher education. These routes can normalize the undergrad experience for young learners to whom the idea feels remote or unimaginable.
Video conferencing is a resource-friendly way to put a human face on the application process. Remote tours and lectures can give potential students a visual reference while getting them excited about the prospect of learning within a bustling community. Talk to multiple high schools at once, and educators can begin to connect far-flung individuals and groups who might otherwise picture campus life as an isolating experience. Like so much with the recruitment of rural students, such approaches are foremost an exercise in empathy.
Online conferences and one-to-ones also give curious high school kids the chance to have their questions answered on the spot. When a university sends application and funding guides ahead of such encounters, students have a chance to prepare for – or immediately follow up on – the discussion. Knowing the right questions to ask can be as valuable as getting a good answer. And, most importantly, these one-on-one methods demonstrate a level of personalization and commitment to open communication that appeals to modern students, regardless of their background.