New College Network Focuses on Students From Rural Communities

The Small Town And Rural Students (STARS) Network includes 16 colleges and universities from across the country.
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  • A new national network of universities aims to support students from rural areas and small towns.
  • The Small Town and Rural Student (STARS) Network includes 16 colleges and universities from across the country.
  • The network will support existing efforts at universities, like on-campus visits and pipeline programs.
  • The network will also help students navigate the admissions process and financial aid.

The number of rural students going to college took a nosedive during the pandemic — but a new national network of high-power colleges and universities aims to change that.

College attendance among rural students increased in the last few decades, but progress in rural college-going rates has stalled in recent years, BestColleges previously reported. The proportion of students heading to college dropped significantly shortly after the pandemic began, according to the Hechinger Report.

Students from rural areas and small towns face unique challenges in getting acclimated to college campuses, and 16 major colleges and universities are partnering to ensure students from those communities both enroll in college and earn a degree.

The new Small Town And Rural Students or STARS College Network includes 16 institutions from across the country and will include stepped up recruitment efforts and support for students on campus in a bid to engage students from rural communities and small towns.

The STARS Network is all about bringing resources and lessons learned together to serve students from rural areas and small towns, University of Chicago Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid James Nondorf, who also serves as the university's vice president for enrollment and student advancement, told BestColleges.

"This is a great opportunity to share best practices, to work together," Nondorf said in an interview.

The network will support institutions as they expand visits by college admissions staff to rural communities and small towns, create student ambassador roles, and partner with employers to create job and internship opportunities for students, according to a press release. The network will also include scholarship funds for students and help students navigate financial aid and admissions.

The effort is supported by a $20 million gift from Trott Family Philanthropies, according to the release. That philanthropic organization was founded by Byron and Tina Trott. Byron Trott, a University of Chicago graduate and the founder, chairman, and CEO of the merchant bank BDT Capital Partners, is originally from the small town of Union, Missouri.

Like other schools in the network, the University of Chicago has worked for years to ensure rural student success on campus. Nondorf highlighted the university's Emerging Rural Leaders program, which features a week-long campus immersion program for juniors from rural and small-town high schools.

"We invest in so many different forms of access at all of our institutions," Nondorf said. "This is a group that has unique challenges in terms of distance, in visiting, and getting to know schools, and also feeling welcomed."

Nondorf regularly visits rural schools across the country as part of the University of Chicago's outreach efforts and said the STARS Network will allow him to underscore other institutions' commitment to rural and small town students during those visits.

"I want to be able to say, 'there are other schools that care about you and have programming, so if you don't get into Chicago's Emerging Leaders Program, you could go to the one that Brown has,'" Nondorf said.

The STARS Network features a broad range of institutions, from Ivy League private schools like Brown University to major land-grant public institutions like the Ohio State University. James Orr, the vice provost for strategic enrollment management at Ohio State, told BestColleges that the university already has extension offices in communities across the state as part of its efforts to reach students.

Orr, who is originally from rural western Tennessee, noted that students from rural communities often face challenges around internet access and other barriers to getting a higher education. Orr said the STARS Network will help institutions better help students overcome those barriers.

"In our rural towns and small communities, we have some of the best and brightest students," Orr said.

Getting students to campus is only half the battle: Orr and Nondorf both emphasized that it's key to support and engage students once they're on campus to ensure they finish their degrees.

"We have a full set of student life programs that are really designed to engage students," Orr said. "Then our academic advisors play a critical role in ensuring their students feel welcome and are successful while they're here."

In addition to the University of Chicago and Ohio State, the institutions currently in the network are:

  • Brown University
  • California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Colby College
  • Columbia University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Northwestern University
  • The University of Iowa
  • University of Maryland, College Park
  • University of Southern California
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Yale University

Campus tours and engagement are critical for ensuring students from rural communities eventually enroll in college: Researchers from Appalachian State University found last year that middle and high school students who visited college campuses were more likely to eventually enroll in college, BestColleges previously reported.