Rural students: the next frontier for university recruiters

8 min read

G. John Cole


Universities wanting to boost international student recruitment often tend to focus on new countries or regions when determining their marketing strategy. However, these strategies are now evolving further, with trends shifting towards new demographies and niches. Rural students are one such group demonstrating significant potential for recruiters, yet untapped as a market until now. 

Over 3.4 billion people live in rural or remote areas worldwide, presenting a large potential market for recruiters wanting to reach new audiences. While it was once considered too difficult by many universities to market to these audiences, the various social, technological and economic factors that once held progress back are now evolving towards positive change. 

A key challenge has often been the underlying culture and socioeconomic status of those from rural areas. In the United States, less than one in five rural students aged 25+ have a university degree (US Department of Agriculture). Many do not consider university as an option, opting to pursue full-time employment immediately after high school. This becomes even more prevalent when family businesses, such as farms are involved (The Hechinger Report).

For those who do choose to attend university, many are the first of their generation to seek higher education. As such,  many high school students in rural communities often do not have peer networks or reference groups to consider when contemplating options. Rural schools often lack counsellors to share information and support and help make connections. With no local university or college nearby and few college student peers, they may not be familiar with what campus life is like or have a sense of the attitudes and behaviours to expect. They may be nervous about doing something so unfamiliar, or reluctant to apply for college due to misconceptions about what it is like to attend.

Universities who work to make strong connections between rural communities and their institution can help reduce any dissonance regarding potential attendance. As socioeconomic and cultural differences may apply, promotional messaging such as the offering of scholarships, ease of ability to apply and attend, and themes of accessibility can be very powerful. Dr. Andrew Koricich, a Research Fellow with the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama says: "Providing greater post-secondary opportunities for rural residents isn't simply a matter of equity or moral obligation — it's a matter of continued national prosperity."

An excellent opportunity for schools targeting rural students is the opportunity to successfully penetrate markets. For those living in remote areas, the usual saturation of marketing messages experienced by those living in more populated regions will not apply, meaning for even higher potential of conversion.

Departments utilizing their local alumni as part of their recruitment plan, such as by establishing applicant buddy programs, can make significant steps towards improving outreach. In small communities, building word of mouth and authenticity in areas where reputation and "talk" can be vital to achieving success. Providing opportunities for locally-based alumni to meet potential students to answer questions about their experiences can work as highly effective recruitment tools.

Respect for rural students and the social benefits of an educated, engaged, and inclusive society can help to build a culture and economy of which to be proud. For communities where fears of losing members and perceptions of "shame" within first-generation university families are rife, it can be important also to incorporate messaging that boosts awareness and reduces cognitive dissonance regarding the negative impacts of students leaving for university.

By improving the community perception of the impact of attending university and increasing familiarity, schools can significantly enhance reception of their marketing activities.

Improving Affordability & Accessibility

Affordability remains to be one of the most significant challenges surrounding rural student recruitment. Some rural students might not have the money for applications and tests. For others, the concept of tuition may not be possible. Scholarships, bursaries and flexible methods of learning such as these can significantly help to reduce the burden of seeking higher education, creating futures for thousands of rural students, and helping their communities too.

Proponents of rural recruitment often cite the importance of diversity when it comes to welcoming more rural students. Many rural students often graduate and return to their communities, often filling vital positions that are frequently understaffed. Some excellent examples of institutions creating initiatives specifically for rural students include VIT Bhopal in India, which offers scholarship programs specifically designed to assist the advancement of rural students. Also, in Canada, the University of Manitoba gives additional weight to students with rural backgrounds applying to their medical program. Programs such as these not only give opportunities to students who otherwise would not be able to but also enrich classrooms by making them truly representative of society. 

Reports show that rural schools are frequently overlooked when compared to more affluent, populated areas, giving opportunity to the schools willing to take up the challenge and travel a little further afield (New York Times). When it comes to recruitment, as mentioned, college recruiters don't tend to visit rural schools on the admissions campaign as frequently as they do urban and suburban ones. It's partly a matter of logistics since these schools tend to have fewer students and take longer to reach. Another factor is that some recruiters are also motivated to target students from wealthier families than the average rural household.

Just 59% of graduating rural high school students head to college in the fall, compared to 67% in suburban areas – and this means those recruiters who are prepared to make the journey or optimize their online marketing strategy for rural students have a massive source of unrealized potential to discover. It's an opportunity that is all the more pertinent since rural student enrollment at post-secondary level is on the rise, against the grain of a more generally challenging market.

Organizations such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) are doing their part to improve access for isolated students by hosting recruitment fairs showcasing large groups of colleges and universities, but for many, the travel required is still significant (The Hechinger Report).

Universities such as the University of Georgia also do their part to contribute by offering free chartered buses for students to attend information sessions as part of their All Georgia program, an initiative designed to provide support for rural students. By improving access to such events for high school students in rural communities, these universities both enhance their outreach but offer a much needed service to local communities.

Online Universities: when distance is no barrier

For those unable to physically move away to university for their studies, the rapid growth of online education has created a  multitude of new opportunities for rural students. As internet service improves in many countries across the world, with a 9% increase in global internet users over the last year, the potential for students in rural areas to pursue their degree online without leaving their community is improving year on year.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 60% of the population lives in a remote location with less than 10 per cent of college-age students enrolled in higher education (World Bank, New York Times). In this region, universities such as UNICAF University have made great strides towards improving the gap for students who normally could not access higher education, offering a large variety of online degrees for them to consider (New York Times). As the population continues to grow, these services are not only vital in terms of access to the education, but also for economic growth and development of the thousands of communities affected.

Once overlooked, rural students are now receiving global attention as a group offering considerable potential value to colleges and universities. For recruiters that are ahead of the curve and already actively reaching out to these groups, there are significant benefits to be gained - whether through enhanced classroom diversity, student enrichment or value of the economic return to the local community. If you haven't already, you should definitely begin to consider incorporating rural student targeting into your next recruitment plan.

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