NCAN Working to Improve Rural Access and Success Outcomes in the Lone Star State

August 21, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

NCAN members across the country are committed to improving the postsecondary access and success outcomes of low-income, first-generation students, many of them students of color. Although most NCAN members are located in urban and suburban areas, an ongoing project finds NCAN staff – in partnership with an NCAN member and other organizations – focusing on helping students in rural communities attend college.

The Rural Student Success Initiative (RSSI) is a collaboration between the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, NCAN, and College Forward that aims to improve college access and completion for students in an initial cohort of 11 rural independent school districts (ISDs) in Texas.

The RSSI demonstration project, which is funded by the Greater Texas Foundation and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, will connect these ISDs with the professional development, technical assistance, and resources needed to help more students get to college and be prepared to persist and complete after they arrive. The technical assistance will draw heavily from College Forward’s training catalog, which covers an array of topics including financial aid education, parent outreach, and completing college applications. NCAN will provide insight into financial aid best practices, process improvement around advising and data collection, and measuring outcomes using the National Student Clearinghouse’s Student Tracker for High Schools service.

Dr. Maria L. Luna-Torres leads the project. She is working within the AgriLife Extension and heading a team of college access and success specialists that is operating alongside NCAN and College Forward in providing support to each participating ISD and its surrounding community.

The AgriLife Extension, which was established in 1915, provides educational outreach, training, and development to Texans. These resources tend to center around agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, 4-H and youth development, and community economic development. Each of Texas’ 254 counties has a county extension agent, and the RSSI will make great use of these individuals. These agents have strong community, business and educational ties, and they are tremendous connectors for the multifaceted work of bringing stakeholders together to improve students’ postsecondary outcomes.

The need for improving college access in rural Texas is significant. The Lone Star state has more rural schools than any other state in the U.S., and students from these schools face challenges in getting to and through college that their urban and suburban counterparts often do not. Chief among these is geographic isolation from institutions of higher education.

A recent analysis by Ben Myers in The Chronicle of Higher Education cited by NASFAA reported that 11.2 million adults, or 3.5 percent of the American adult population, live in education deserts. He defines these as areas where this is no broad-access institution within 60 miles. Most of these deserts are in western, rural states like Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana. A 2016 study found that 40 percent of first-time, full-time students attend a college or university close to home. So, for many students, the lack of a nearby institution becomes the lack of a postsecondary education.

Rural students’ journeys to college have been well documented in recent years, notably by The New York Times.

Nationwide, students from rural communities are underrepresented on college campuses despite these students’ K-12 achievement levels (e.g., NAEP math and reading, high school graduation) being on par with or exceeding students from urban or suburban communities. This underrepresentation is not merely a problem for individual students’ prospects later in life. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the United States will require some form of postsecondary education, and the nation will fall short of the number of college-educated employees it needs. Students from all communities must have improved postsecondary access to meet workforce demands. That is all to say nothing of the health and civic benefits of postsecondary education, which are considerable.

The ISDs currently working with the RSSI include:

  • Apple Springs ISD
  • Carrizo Springs Consolidated ISD
  • Huntington ISD
  • Jasper ISD
  • La Pryor ISD
  • Paris ISD
  • Roscoe Collegiate ISD
  • San Augustine ISD
  • Santa Maria ISD
  • Skidmore-Tynan ISD
  • Trenton ISD

As the initiative proceeds, lessons learned about implementing best practices in rural communities and the resources these districts need will pollinate to other rural communities within and beyond Texas. Naturally, NCAN will share these valuable insights and lessons to members and the college access and success field more broadly. Stay tuned.

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