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Kali Lindsay in front of the Memorial Student Union on the University of Missouri campus. She said that the counselor from a college-enrollment effort was “a game changer” in helping her plan, apply, pay for — and navigate — her journey to campus. Credit: Chloe Bordenaro

LAWRENCE COUNTY, Tenn. —You could easily find reasons why Kali Lindsay should not be in college right now. She lost her mother at age 8. At 16, for her own good, she left home.

To support herself (she moved in with an older brother) in high school she worked 30 hours a week at an Arby’s next to a weed-studded field in a retail park, earning $8.20 an hour. She closed, at 1 a.m., forcing a choice: Go to school exhausted or skip classes and learn the material on her own.

Lindsay also faced a huge cultural obstacle — geography.

She is from Clinton, Missouri (pop. 8,947), where college-going is not a given. No one in her family went. Few around her did, either. “I didn’t know how anything worked,” she said.

From a young age, students in suburban and urban communities marinate in college-going, even college-competitive, environments. That is often missing in rural America, where communities like Lindsay’s can treat high school as a capstone, not a steppingstone.

Federal data show that less than 30 percent of rural residents age 25 and up have an associate degree or higher; more than 43 percent of urban residents do. That’s a problem because the data don’t lie: Two-thirds of all jobs and 80 percent of all “good” jobs (paying a median wage of $65,000) demand a postsecondary credential, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

This longstanding gap troubled Jim Ayers, a businessman raised in rural Decatur County, Tennessee, enough to make him act. He started The Ayers Foundation in 1999, and through it has been quietly changing how people in some rural communities think about postsecondary education.

Given the educational and economic divide between rural and nonrural America, this may be the most important college access program you’ve never heard of.

The foundation’s results in several small, rural counties are eye-popping. By 2019, Ayers had helped impoverished Perry County reach an 86 percent college-going rate (57 students), the highest in the state, according to government figures. At Decatur County ’s Riverside High School, where the foundation has been working since 1999, postsecondary enrollment (including military and technical training) has risen from 24 to 84 percent (95 students). In two other counties, three rural high schools reached that postsecondary enrollment for 76 percent (143 students), 82 percent (98 students) and 87 percent (159 students) of their 2019 graduates, the foundation reports.

Such performances have attracted a national partner, rootEd Alliance, a two-year-old philanthropic collaborative, which has taken the Ayers-style model to other rural communities in Tennessee, Missouri and, now, Texas., serving more than 3,000 students.

For years, Janet Ayers, the foundation president who is married to Jim, said they resisted pleas to work in other counties. “It was not sustainable for us to serve everyone all over the place,” she said. But when former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam urged a meeting with rootEd, “it opened our eyes.” Now, through rootEd, the model inspired by Ayers is in 23 rural high schools plus has partnerships with four community colleges. (RootEd took the model to 13 rural Texas high schools this fall and plans to expand to 30 by 2023).

Noa Meyer, president of rootEd Alliance, was drawn to the foundation’s emphasis on local relationships. Those living in rural places “trust people from their communities to solve problems,” she said. “They are not looking for outsiders to give them answers.”

Jim Ayers was not a stellar student, and neither of his parents had a college degree. But Ayers said his father, a sawmill logger and farm worker, “told me right quick, he did not intend for me to grow up and work like him all his life.” Having done farm work as a teen, Ayers agreed.

Lawrence County, Tennessee, where its three high schools recently joined a college access effort that is closing the rural-nonrural education gap. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

The accounting degree he earned from Memphis State University, he said, opened the door that enabled him to build a fortune, first with a network of nursing homes and then by acquiring a bank, renaming it FirstBank and expanding. It is now the third largest bank in Tennessee.

A college-going expectation, he said, is powerful. Yet, in places where many people live within a half-hour drive of their birthplace, it’s also fraught. Ayers said parents have told him that they don’t “want their children to get more education than they had because it would make them look bad.” Or, as one rural student shared, classmates don’t go to college “because they don’t know how and their parents didn’t.” Plus, the student said, “kids in friend groups that don’t go to college tend not to go to college.”

Changing such mindsets is not easy. But it is happening.

Related: A big reason rural students never go to college: Colleges don’t recruit them

The Ayers Foundation model is ridiculously simple. It starts with putting a counselor — someone raised rural and connected to the community — in a local high school to help every student craft a career plan, then guide them through the tasks required to apply for — and pay for — a postsecondary degree to execute it. (This is in addition to the guidance counselors employed by the schools, who are often overtaxed.)

There are a few important details, however. One is that while many college-access programs focus on helping high-performers reach top schools, this model goes broad. The goal is for everyone to have a path.

Paige Cyrus-Ham, left, rootEd college adviser at Reed Springs High School in Missouri, helped Kylie Eubanks, center, and her mother, Kim Eubanks, fill out the FAFSA in her office one October evening. RootEd is helping to expand a college-enrollment effort that has reported eye-popping results. Credit: Paige Cyrus-Ham

Students may aim for a four-year university. They may attend a local community college or technical school. They may choose the military. (About 85 percent enroll at two- or four-year colleges; about 75 percent of those earn a degree or credential.) A few may go to colleges like Vanderbilt and Yale. But the goal is not to name-check elites; it’s to educate local students for living-wage jobs.

Another feature of the Ayers Foundation model is how personal and deep the help is. The counselors, who work full-time, year-round, and earn $50,000 to $65,000 a year, including benefits, stop by to check in with students stocking the dairy case at Walmart or working a shift at a Sonic Drive-In. They answer a student’s 1 a.m. text right away because, said Paige Cyrus-Ham, a counselor at Reed Springs High School in Reed Springs, Missouri (pop. 873), “I know the student is looking at their phone right now.”

The model, in other words, is Cyrus-Ham, masked and socially distanced, in her office at 7 p.m. on a fall Thursday helping Kylie Eubanks and her mom complete the FAFSA. They couldn’t meet with Cyrus-Ham until Kylie’s mom got out of work.

“We were completely clueless,” said Kylie, speaking by phone as she volunteered at a “cat café” where felines await adoption (“you might hear some meows”). “She walked us literally through the whole entire thing.”

What struck Kylie about applying to college — she wants to attend the University of Arkansas or NorthWest Arkansas Community College — was that it was “not simple, but easier than people make it sound.” She added that, “if they know that, it will skyrocket people going to college from here.”

That seems to be happening. Two years ago, rootEd put Ayers-style counselors in two rural southwestern Missouri high schools. The next year, nearby Ozarks Technical Community College, known as OTC, says it saw a 21 percent enrollment increase from those two schools.

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Summertown High School in Lawrence County, Tennessee, recently joined a college-enrollment effort that has reported eye-popping results. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

That spurred Hal Higdon, OTC’s president, to partner with rootEd and Ayers to support more counselors, in four high schools (including Kylie’s), plus put two “navigators” on campus to help students with school issues or personal needs. Higdon saw the power of the model: Helping students also helped the bottom line.

Related: A regional public university’s identity crisis

As a result, even as community colleges across the U.S. have suffered plummeting enrollments — down 9.5 percent for fall 2020 over fall 2019, according to federal data — OTC says it had a 14 percent rise last summer and only a 2 percent drop this fall.

Ayers and rootEd are demonstrating how barriers to higher education can be overcome with effective personalized guidance. To do this, Ayers spends about $4.7 million per year supporting education efforts, including for the counselors, college fairs, campus visits and scholarships. RootEd provides seed funding and expertise, as it did to OTC (Ayers supplied training), with hopes that the efforts will become self-sustaining. At OTC, increased enrollments should in the future “cover much, if not all” the counselor costs, said Meyer of rootEd, which will invest nearly $3 million this year to help local partners. Texas got rootEd’s attention, she said, because a new education finance law, HB3, includes funding to encourage post-secondary enrollment that could help support their efforts there.

Both organizations are building their success on a key strategy: Rather than highlight the deficiencies that feed the rural education gap, they focus on fortifying existing local relationships — a form of social capital — and bending them toward increased college-going.

Hope Perry, college access counselor for The Ayers Foundation Scholars Program, in the library of Summertown High School in Lawrence County, Tennessee. The program is helping to narrow the rural-nonrural education gap. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

I saw the grit of rural networks while visiting Lawrence County, Tennessee, in September. Education leaders (as everywhere) were grappling with a tough Covid school year. In addition, they faced the added rural burdens of spotty cell service and fragile high-speed internet (it went down two days in a row in the schools, which are designated hotspots in a county where just 52.4 percent of residents have broadband).

Yet, I saw teachers making videos of lessons and putting them on thumb drives, and school officials figuring out ways to turn school buses into remote internet hot spots. With little fanfare, they took on hard things. “It is kind of what we do,” said Hope Perry, the Ayers Foundation counselor at Summertown High School.

Perry can get 20 to 30 texts a day from students with questions. The fact that she was a reluctant college-goer herself (she wanted to enlist in the Army, but her father, a veteran, “wouldn’t sign my papers”; she went to the University of Northern Alabama) helps her read the hesitation many students have about college.

She also amplifies a critical Ayers strategy. Susan Rhodes, who heads the foundation’s Scholars Program, calls it “understanding the dynamics of a rural community.” That means not placing counselors in the high school they graduated from, to avoid preconceptions about a student’s aspirations, as in “oh, you are wasting your time.” Perry, a graduate of Summertown’s rival Loretto High School, embodies that balance of familiarity and distance. She counters the branding of a student as “so and so’s kid,” with a reputation good or bad, “and everyone assumes that is who you will be.”

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Cheyenne Mattox, left, and Ashlyn Walker, right, Summertown High School Class of 2020 in Lawrence County, Tennessee, in the school foyer. A college access program there is helping to close the rural-nonrural postsecondary education gap. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

In early September, inside the Summertown High library, Perry wore a print fabric mask featuring the school’s bald eagle mascot. Ashlyn Walker and Cheyenne Mattox, both Class of 2020, sat nearby, masked and socially distanced. Both said they had intended to go to four-year campuses, but ditched those plans when Covid hit, settling instead on attending Columbia State Community College, 20 miles away, remotely.

What appeared an easy move grew complicated when both happened to be picked for FAFSA verification; to receive financial aid, they had to prove that their submitted information was accurate. From April until August, Perry marched them through documentation requests, often meeting them in the school parking lot before entering the darkened building to use the copier in the main office.

After all that, Walker considered not attending when she faced a new obstacle: She didn’t have a computer to take the required online orientation class. Perry found her a laptop to borrow, then a scholarship to buy one. “I probably would not be in college if not for Miss Hope,” Walker said.

Related: As jobs grow hard to fill, businesses join the drive to push rural residents toward college

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Ashlyn Walker, who graduated from Summertown High School in Lawrence County, Tennessee, last spring, said she would not be in college right now if not for Ayers Foundation counselor Hope Perry. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

For some, it doesn’t take much for college to lurch out of reach. But getting students in and through is not rocket science, either.

“We are barrier-removers,” said Janet Ayers. Counselors are charged with figuring out what students need and connecting them to it, whether mental health services, food pantries or transportation. They have helped students navigate immigration laws and get federal and state support because they are homeless. In Kali Lindsay’s case, they helped her gain legal independence from her father so she could receive financial aid reflecting her circumstances.

If that looks more like social work than strict educational guidance, it is. Yet, personalizing counseling to an individual student’s life circumstances — rather than offering a standard menu of college-application help — may be the powerful missing piece needed to tackle the rural education gap.

In Lindsay’s case, that is certainly true. She wanted to go to college — her ticket, she thought, “to creating a life for myself where I was not struggling all the time” — but had no idea how to begin. When the rootEd-Ayers partnership brought the model to her high school last year, counselor Lindy Johnson became a path-changing ally.

“She helped me personally with figuring out what I actually wanted to do,” said Lindsay, who despite hardships scored a 28 on the ACT, 5’s on Advanced Placement English Language and English Composition exams and a 4 on the AP U.S. Government and Politics exam. Johnson also helped her apply for financial aid and find scholarships to cover nearly the full cost of college (after a campus job and a grant fell through, she took out $3,500 in loans).

Now a first-year student at the University of Missouri, double-majoring in English and political science with designs on law school, Lindsay said Johnson “was a game changer.”

Yet Covid has thrown up more challenges: Lindsay wanted an off-campus job, but after having to quarantine twice will wait to work full time at Wendy’s over winter break.

She marvels at the support many of her classmates have, including parents who send them money for shopping, which, she said, “blows my mind.” But she loves being at school. “It is the kind of energy I wanted in my life.”

Plus, she knows that Johnson is there for her. “I text her all the time, ‘Hey, what do I do?’ ” said Lindsay. Once, after sharing that she felt overwhelmed, Lindsay recalled, “she sent me a message: ‘You’re bright, you’re smart, you can do this.’”

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