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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The sunrise in rural central Michigan reveals a landscape of neatly divided cornfields crossed by ditches and wooded creeks.
But few of the sleepy teenagers on the lumbering school bus from Maple Valley Junior–Senior High School likely noticed this scene on their hour drive to Grand Rapids along the two-lane Highway 66 and Interstate 96.
They were headed from the two villages that make up their tiny school district — Nashville and Vermontville, total combined population 2,404 — to the DeVos Place Convention Center, where 151 colleges and universities had booths set up at a recruiting fair organized by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC.
The students were going to see the recruiters because few recruiters come to see them.
Urban and suburban students may take college recruiting visits for granted, but recruiters rarely go to schools as small or as distant as Maple Valley, which serves fewer than 500 sixth- through 12th-graders.
“When we think about an urban high school, a college recruiter can hit 1,500 students at a time,” said Andrew Koricich, an assistant professor of education at Appalachian State University. “To do that in a rural area, you may have to go to 10 high schools.”
Rural households also have lower incomes than urban and suburban ones, the Census Bureau reports, meaning that rural students are less profitable for colleges — which often have to offer them financial aid.
“People tend to overlook the rural areas. I think it’s kind of disappointing, because some able students could get looked over,” said David Hochstetler, 17, who was one of the students on that school bus.
New research backs this up. Colleges and universities prefer to recruit at high schools in communities where the average family income is above $100,000, while forgoing visits to those where it’s $70,000 or lower, according to a study of 140 institutions conducted by researchers at UCLA and the University of Arizona. They also concentrate disproportionately on private schools. Rural areas usually have neither wealthy families nor private schools.
This anemic outreach is among the reasons comparatively low numbers of high school graduates from rural high schools end up in college the following fall — 59 percent, compared to 62 percent of urban and 67 percent of suburban high school grads, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this.
That, in turn, may threaten a broader economy that relies heavily on rural communities and workers, Koricich said.
“Providing greater postsecondary opportunities for rural residents isn’t simply a matter of equity or moral obligation — it’s a matter of continued national prosperity,” Koricich said.
Now, with attention newly focused on rural America, and traditional sources of students drying up in a dramatic enrollment decline, colleges and universities with ample money in their recruiting budgets are rediscovering it.
They’ve realized that “selective institutions should have a broader range of representation of types of students related to the types of adults we have in America” — including rural ones — said Patricia McDonough, an education professor at UCLA. “This becomes even more important in the Trump era,” she said, because of the sense of alienation surveys suggest many rural Americans experience. Research conducted by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, for example, found that people in the most rural areas are twice as likely to feel powerless and marginalized as those in cities and suburbs, and the less education they have, the more alienated they feel.
At the recruiting fair in Grand Rapids, “students of any background” could see the array of opportunities available to them, said Damon Bouwkamp, an admissions officer at nearby Aquinas College who chaired the event. “It’s really exposing students to places that aren’t in their backyards.”
One thing was certain: The 151 institutions that set up booths and tables in the spacious, fluorescent-lit hall were far more than would ever come to Maple Valley and rural schools like it.
Universities and colleges that get most of their students from urban centers have only now begun to consider rural student outreach as a deliberate part of their recruitment strategies, said David Hawkins, NACAC’s executive director for educational content and policy.
NACAC is encouraging this by distributing research about rural students to college and university admissions officers, said Hawkins. Still, he added, it’s predominantly regional postsecondary institutions, not in-demand flagships and elite colleges, that show up to many of the smaller regional recruiting fairs organized by NACAC’s 23 chapters.
“It’s not a lack of thought and awareness,” Hawkins said. “There are pretty significant barriers.”
A few regional institutions such as public, historically black Fort Valley State University visit his school or attend the college fairs he organizes, said Carlton Stewart, counselor at Hancock Central High School in Sparta, Georgia, enrollment 299. But the University of Georgia doesn’t come. Morehouse College recruits only for its Upward Bound program, not for admission.
“A lot of students don’t have access to transportation or programs that may be available to suburban students in general,” Stewart said, adding that the absence of a local college-going culture compounds this problem.
It’s not easy for rural students to visit colleges and universities to learn more about them or participate in sit-down interviews with admissions officers. From her home village of Vermontville, said Sarah Lowndes, 16, “You have to drive a long distance to actually get somewhere that’s an actual place.”
Colleges that do try to recruit at rural high schools or regional recruiting fairs have cultural obstacles to overcome, too, McDonough said.
Even the smartest rural students tend to be reluctant to move far away to go to college, McDonough has found in her research.
“It’s kind of a golden cage,” she said. “You don’t want to leave home, family — a way of life that you know and love.”
Maple Valley students echoed this. Most don’t want to stray far from the familiar, or they’re concerned about how they’ll pay tuition.
Britani Shilton, 17, a four-sport athlete, wants to study kinesiology at a community college “because I’m used to smaller settings, not bigger settings. I feel like it would just be really overwhelming. I went to Michigan State for a basketball camp one time, and there were so many people there. I was like, ‘Whoa! I don’t know what to think about this.’ ”
Lowndes plans to get a cosmetology degree from the for-profit Empire Beauty School, followed by an interior design degree from Baker College, a private, career-oriented two-year institution with eight campuses in Michigan.
Lowndes’ parents work in Lansing; she thought about moving there, but “Vermontville is a lot quieter,” she said. “I mean, I like Lansing, but there’s a lot of crime there.”
Out on the High Plains, Dave Morrow, principal at St. Francis Community High School in the extreme northwestern corner of Kansas, said that only a few public regional institutions visit his combined middle and high school of 144 students. Kansas State University also visits, and a strong alumni network in the local agricultural industry motivates a number of his graduates to go there.
But in the last five years, during which Morrow also served as guidance counselor because of budgetary issues, the University of Kansas, or KU, visited the school in the socially conservative area only once. That absence makes it hard to “counteract that view people have out here that KU is a bastion of liberalism and weirdness, because it’s not.”
Overcoming such perceptions means not only reaching rural students where they live, but getting them to visit campuses, said Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
“Students come to campus with reluctance, feeling that it may be too big. Once they get there and talk one-on-one to a current student, faculty person or admissions staff, they tend to be less frightened,” Borst said.
Back in Michigan, Hochstetler, the son of carpenters, wants to be an engineer. He said he’s “liked building things” since the time he took apart an old toaster when he was 8. He also likes Michigan’s cold winters and hot summers; he’s gregarious, but said rural life matches his “antisocial” nature.
There are engineering jobs in Hastings, Michigan, a city of around 7,300 near his home. Hochstetler’s SAT score, 1320, is at the 92nd percentile, and while he’s reluctant to leave home, a few smaller Michigan schools known for their engineering programs made his initial shortlist: Kettering University in Flint and Michigan Technological University, a public institution in a small Upper Peninsula city of 7,700.
But the University of Michigan, with its internationally renowned engineering school, and Michigan State, the other flagship university, are too expensive for him, Hochstetler said. Julia DeGroot, Maple Valley’s college counselor, said he’d likely qualify for the University of Michigan’s new Go Blue Guarantee, which gives free tuition to in-state students with annual family incomes of $65,000 or less, but the program doesn’t cover room and board, books and supplies and other expenses.
At Michigan Tech, “I’ll come out of it with, like, no debt whatsoever,” Hochstetler said.
Meanwhile, many rural parents are comparatively skeptical of higher education in general, DeGroot said.
While 82 and 84 percent of urban and suburban white men believe that colleges and universities have a role to play in providing needed skills and education, just 71 percent of rural white men believe that they do, the Pew Research Center found.
DeGroot is the daughter of Grand Rapids white-collar professionals and went to a private high school. For her, she said, “college was never, ‘Are you going?’ It was, ‘Where are you going?’ ”
“That’s not the case for these kids,” she said.
“One of the biggest struggles is getting the parents to see that big picture, where, ‘It’s okay if my kid goes away to college for four years. It doesn’t mean that they’re never coming back,’ ” she said.
One of her students plans to go to a community college because of her father’s wishes and the lower cost, DeGroot said, even though “she could get into Michigan State. She could probably get into Michigan.”
At Maple Valley, 95 percent of students graduate, the Michigan Department of Education reports, much higher than the 84 percent national average. But only 45 percent of those students enroll in college.
As for Hochstetler, he’s set on Michigan Tech.
“They’re kind of chill up there. They like to have fun — even though it’s an engineering school — but they don’t goof off a lot. They’re really studious, still. And they also don’t focus on English, which I am really thankful for. I hate English class. I’m sorry. I hate it.”
And then he got on the bus for the hour drive back to Maple Valley High.
This story about rural students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.