Rural Students’ College Search in 2020-21

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Niche has surveyed over 45,000 students this summer and fall to better understand their college search process and what has changed with them during the pandemic. For this look at the experiences of students attending rural high schools, we will look at the 2020 Niche Senior Survey and the recently completed Class of 2021 Fall Survey.

5 Key Points and Lessons to Apply

  • Rural students were more likely to apply for scholarships and receive financial aid from the college they are attending, but were also more likely to be taking on a loan as well. This can lead to more stress and lower retention – so approach financial aid and work-study early and often in the communication process in an honest and realistic manner. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic had less of an effect on their college search and decision making than their peers. Only 15% felt that it was riskier to attend college and 45% said that the pandemic has had no effect on their college decisions. The spikes in cases certainly worked around typical visit seasons, but this fall has disrupted most if not all visits. Your rural students remain positive about the value of education.
  • The only significant difference between rural and suburban or urban students in what factors they consider important when making decisions was in the importance of visit experiences. Rural students were more likely to place importance on on-campus visits and less likely to place importance on virtual events. When working with rural students, a group virtual event might not be as desirable. Focus more on small, safe, on-campus opportunities of 1:1 calls and personalized virtual experiences run by counselors.
  • When recruiting students from rural areas, focus more on 1:1 contact from counselors, print materials, and texting than you would for their peers. Their #1 preference to learn about a college, if they can’t visit, is to talk with an admissions counselor. If you have been stretched thin with resources, automating the experience for rural students won’t cut it. You can ask students how much they want to connect with admission staff, but beyond that, it would behoove you to emphasize personal contacts with rural students.
  • Rural students are more likely to have already taken a standardized test and are more likely to submit their test scores to the colleges they are applying to. Rural students may be less concerned about issues surrounding the tests or are less aware of test-optional policies. Ask your rural students if they’re familiar with test-optional admission policies and how it may benefit them if they’re low-income or first-generation.

Rural Students’ Search Process

In most ways, rural students behave very similarly to their peers in the suburbs and at urban schools. Where there were differences, most were positive. The more concerning differences don’t come until we look at enrollment trends and concerns, but up until then – rural students tend to have an upper hand. When asked about their fears and anxieties, the only area they exhibited a difference was whether they were afraid that their grades and test scores would prevent them from being admitted to the college they want to attend. Only 38% of students from rural students were anxious while 48% of suburban and urban students were.

They were more likely to report that they faced no issues when applying to colleges, and the only area they had more concern was in a lack of counseling support at their high school. Rural students were more likely to place value on relationships with admission counselors, so there is certainly an opportunity here for staff to step in, both to support the students and to help the school counselors in their area. Mentorship from ambassadors who were also rural students can help your institution stand out as a resource and help support rural students as they make the transition to college.

Rural students had different preferences on the types of institutions they considered as well. They were slightly more likely to consider online colleges, perhaps due to their higher likelihood of wanting to stay close to home but with less access to colleges in the area. The biggest differences were in those who considered 2-year colleges (29% vs 24%) and private 4-year institutions (43% vs 52%). There were no campus characteristics that were significantly more important to rural students, but they were less concerned with a college’s alumni network and ranking. 

When it comes to enrolling in college, one important challenge for rural students starts to emerge. They were more likely to report applying for scholarships or grants and more likely to receive aid from their college. They were, however, more likely to be taking on loans in spite of this. Only 30% of rural students said that they were confident that they could afford the college at which they chose to enroll this fall. In spite of this, they reported higher satisfaction with their financial aid. Providing generous aid to rural students can help both the students attain their college degree, but can help provide you with advocates and promoters.

Recruiting Rural Students

Rural students expressed more preference for personal connections and taking the advice of those they know over online resources. When asked their top choice for how to learn about a college without visiting, rural students’ preference was for 1-1 communication with an admissions counselor. The top pick for their peers was to attend virtual events, the third choice for rural students. They also were more likely to pick print materials as their preferred option, though only 10% said that it was their #1 choice.

Only 27% of students from rural schools felt that virtual events were important to their process, but 71% valued campus visits. This is a bit different from 39% and 66% of their peers. Make the experiences that you are able to safely have, be it online or on campus, as personal as possible and make the connections with admission staff and current students early. They also reported higher satisfaction in every category of experience except chatbots – they were happier with their visit experiences, virtual visits, recruiting materials they received, and the quality of the institution they enrolled at.

When given the choice of only one method of outreach, rural students preferred email the most but to a lesser degree than their peers. They also were more likely to prefer texting, but at a distant second with 20% preferring it. Most contact methods were well received by students, but 38% said that they never want to receive a phone call. 

More Resources

Unprecedented College Search: The Class of 2021 Fall Survey
2020 Niche Senior Survey: College Search to Enrollment
Niche Enrollment Solutions
2019 Recruiting Rural Students
NACAC Rural SIG

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Will Patch

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.

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