Learning about College Access in Rural America

by | Mar 20, 2019

Last spring, Partners for Education at Berea College brought 287 people from 25 states and the District of Columbia together for two days of work, learning and inspiration at the first Rural College Access and Success Summit. We heard from teachers, high school students, directors of national organizations, and a wide range of college access and success practitioners about the challenges and opportunities that rural education presents.

After the Summit, we synthesized the many discussions into a white paper (available here) that explores key aspects of ensuring students from rural communities have the opportunity to find a college or university that meets their needs and that they have the skills and aptitudes needed to graduate.

In part, the white paper addressed the unique challenges faced by educators working in rural communities. “Brain drain,” or the fear that students who leave for college won’t return, was a recurring topic but, somewhat unexpectedly, most conversations had a positive tone. Thanks to changes in economic systems, many see rural communities as places where entrepreneurship is possible and careers can be built. Our responsibility is to ensure students are prepared to take advantage of these new possibilities.

From left, Jane Hodgdon (U.S. Department of Education), Josh Davis (StriveTogether), Caleb Herod (Delta Health Alliance), Dreama Gentry (Partners for Education) and Christian Motley (Strive Together) shared ideas for improving education in rural America.

The suggestions for improving educational opportunities for students took many forms. For example, several participants argued that schools need to provide a more rigorous curriculum for all students and not just to those at the top of the class. Other discussions started from a belief that educational reform requires that we change the culture of most schools and — in some cases — the communities that surround them. To address inequities based on socio-economic status or race, we must embrace data-driven decision making focused on improving outcomes for all students. And, almost everyone agreed that increasing student participation in school governance would help create better learning environments.

None of these improvements can happen without sustained efforts at many different levels, so in the conclusion of the paper, we outlined concrete steps that can be taken locally and nationally.  

Locally, we should

  • listen to the voices of our students, their family members and our teachers and community members
  • embrace data, rigor and programs that are proven effective
  • strive to understand the disparities within our communities by looking hard at our practices, our policies and our systems to ensure ALL students have the opportunity to succeed
  • create pathways to success that meet the needs of individual students
  • work with community members to ensure that at least one pathway leads back home

In addition to conversations about “big picture issues,” Summit participants had the opportunity to share and learn various types of practical techniques.

The greater challenge, perhaps, will come in learning to work together on the national stage. Achieving positive results in this area will require

  • discarding the scarcity mentality that leads us to compete for resources
  • developing a unified rural voice on matters of public policy and education legislation
  • using this voice to encourage national philanthropic organizations to invest in rural students, rural teachers and rural communities

Having experienced the first Rural Summit, I am more convinced than ever that stronger partnerships among rural communities remain our best hope for providing rural students with the opportunities they deserve. This is why a second Summit, where we can continue to build upon our commitment to rural communities, is being planned for April 28-30, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky. I hope to see and hear from many of you there.

Dreama Gentry
Executive Director
Partners for Education at Berea College


Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.

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