Educational Barriers – Location

From the editor

View Articles
Where are you from? It’s a harmless enough question. But for many college students, it carries extra weight. Growing up in an underserved community, college isn’t an expectation or the norm, it’s the exception. Seen as something only for the lucky, privileged few — the “rich kids”, the “brainiacs”, never simply: “me.”

In communities across America, from the remote corners of Alaska to the heart of our inner-cities, there are students. Students, who unlike their suburban counterparts, have the cards stacked against them based on where they were born. Recently, the New York Times reported that only 29% of rural and 47% of urban youth, aged 18-24, are enrolling in college. By comparison, the national average for that age range is 69.7%.

Why is college enrollment so disproportionate in these communities? What is preventing these students from taking the next step in their education? To answer these questions and provide important advice for these students, we interviewed a range of experts to speak on how growing up in underserved communities affected their students, their colleges, and their own lives.

As communities – large and small, rural and urban – we must join in on the conversation. We have an obligation to all students to encourage and support them in their academic interests regardless of where they come from. We need to let them know that no matter what, college is attainable, whether it’s a technical certificate, associate degree, or full four-year bachelor’s program. They have options — options not defined by where they come from.


According to the U.S. Department of Education, “nearly half of all students who begin college do not graduate within six years.” The impact of completing a degree is undeniable – bachelor degree graduates have higher lifetime earnings than those with just a high school diploma, and it is predicted that two-thirds of jobs will require some college or postsecondary training by 2020. But reaching college and successfully graduating means overcoming a host of challenges, such as being academically ready and able to pay for college.

40% of students in urban locales attend high poverty schools — defined as schools with more than 40% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch.

These challenges are faced by college-bound high school students in rural and urban areas, too, and are often amplified by characteristics related to their location. Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Technology in Education reports that “40% of students in urban locales attend high poverty schools (defined as schools with more than 40% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch).” This number is 10% of suburban students and 25% of those in rural locations. The study also found that “students in urban schools have lower achievement scores” than suburban students.

According to a report from the American Youth Policy Forum, while rural school districts serve smaller numbers of students than urban and suburban districts, they are likely to have more limited funding that results in problems with teacher recruitment and the development of specialized curriculum to support students’ college and career preparation. In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the percentage of adults age 25 and over who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher is lower in rural communities (22%) than in city (34%) or suburban (35%) locations. This means fewer college-educated role models for these students are living in their communities.

the percentage of adults age 25 and over who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher is lower in rural communities (22%) than in city (34%) or suburban (35%) locations

From making initial decisions about pursuing a college education to navigating the application and admissions process, urban and rural students face an extended set of challenges. While there may be school-based resources in place to prepare these prospective students, these efforts alone may not be enough. What can high school students in these locations do to improve their readiness to meet these challenges before they apply? Three strategies include: becoming more familiar with college campus culture, considering a wide range of higher education options, and working closely with an experienced mentor.

Making Campus Visits

Looking for opportunities to visit college campuses, any college campuses, before graduating from high school is a good place to start, including local institutions, even if they aren’t on a student’s list. Check the campus tour schedule. These are often led by current students who can answer questions about what college is like and what to expect. It may be possible to visit out-of-town colleges through events offered directly by the colleges themselves, such as Fly-In programs). Other opportunities may exist through pre-college programs, such as TRiO’s Upward Bound. Ask teachers about school-based clubs that travel to campuses for meetings and events. Attend “College Night” and similar programs offered through high schools to meet representatives from multiple colleges who can answer questions about applications, admissions, financial aid, and more.

Considering College Options

When you think of “college” what does that mean to you? Initial thoughts might center on large state universities, small community colleges and technical schools close to home, or anything in between. Begin the exploration of what it means to go to college by expanding your research to include not only your initial thoughts, but also a wider range of possibilities. There are many ways to earn a college degree. Finding the best fit is a personalized search that can include everything from which majors are offered and what scholarships are available to the availability of a cross-campus transportation shuttle and specific student clubs and activities.

Making the Most of Mentorship

By definition, a mentor is “a trusted counselor or guide.” Some rural and urban schools lack resources in school advising – there just aren’t enough counselors to go around. Finding someone who can provide one-on-one guidance throughout the college application and decision-making process isn’t easy, but it’s important for each student who is thinking about college to not only identify someone who can provide this kind of advice, but also initiate a conversation about mentorship. This person could be a teacher, principal, career or school counselor, coach, tutor, church or community group leader, a neighbor or relative with college experience, or other adult that can answer questions, provide advice, and make connections with possible resources.

Our thought leaders point out that getting urban and rural high school students to college “takes a village.” This happens through partnerships and coordinated initiatives, as well as the initiative of each interested student to get familiar with what college will be like and how the whole process of applying, getting accepted, and choosing a school works.

Resources for Further Reading

In addition to the academic services offered by your high school or college, these resources can be used to augment your efforts to prepare for college-level course work, and gain additional practice with more complex topics.

Urban Education Module – Hosted by Johns Hopkins University, this site provides resources designed to assist school, community, and business partnerships to support the needs of students in K-12 urban school settings.


Rural Education in America – A collection of data resources related to rural student characteristics and enrollment in public and private elementary and secondary schools, provided by the National Center for Education Statistics.


Characteristics of Children’s Families – Research and data related to how characteristics such as family income, ethnicity, and education levels may impact students’ school experiences and outcomes.

Resources for Students in Rural and Underserved Urban Communities

Campus Setting: Rural, Suburban, Urban – Which environment is right for you? The College Board presents some of the key characteristics of colleges situated in different locations prompting topics for further research and ideas about finding your best fit.


Career Planning for High Schoolers – This guide from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shares tips for how all high school students can begin to explore possible careers before entering college, and make college decisions with career preparation in mind.


Overcoming Four Key Challenges to Rural Student Postsecondary Success – This article outlines specific challenges, such as “underpreparedness” and “limited available resources,” and provides specific opportunities for campuses and students to connect and overcome each one.


Urban Upbound – This organization provides assistance, such as financial counseling and employment services, for residents in public housing neighborhoods in New York City, partnering with foundations, businesses and government agencies.


National Writing Project (Urban Education) (Rural Education) – Explore resources for both teachers and students living in different environments, which include an audio author series, book reviews, author interviews, and related research reports.

Resources for Making the Transition to College

College Advising Corps – A national organization affiliated with Americorps and the National Partnership for Educational Access, this group supports the work of high school counselors providing admissions and financial aid guidance to high-need students who are applying to college.


Strive for College – A non-profit student-mentor matching service that partners with colleges to provide admissions advice through an online platform.


CollegePoint – This free college advising service is available for qualified high school students who want help creating a list of target schools, completing applications, exploring financial resources, and learning about college life.


Student Success Agency – On online community offering “college mentoring anywhere at anytime” with resources for teachers, students, and parents. Focused on providing support for goal setting and college decision making.

Let's Keep In Touch

Sign up to receive the latest news in higher education.

Page 1