College prep classes, panels are helping kids get to college

Recruiters are turning to college roadshows and prep classes to convince more rural students to go to college.

Many of the strategies largely include getting information out to rural students early, from federally funded college prep classes that meet regularly from the time students are freshmen to “college roadshows” where prospective college students can hear from their rural peers about making the transition.

But those strategies have limitations — not all rural schools have regular access to college prep programs and regular college visits. Educators often say larger systemic solutions come down to one word: money. They’d like the state to spend more to enable rural school districts to hire more counselors, fund college preparedness programs, and help the Universities of Wisconsin rely less on tuition and increase in-person recruiting in far-flung areas.

But there’s a political reality: Lawmakers have been reluctant to allocate more funds to the UW system for the past 15 years and have only offered assistance to the counties losing their branch campuses once they’ve closed. In fact, the state’s budget-writing committee has yet to release $2 million pledged to each county affected by closures, funding promised in legislation passed last session.

The Universities of Wisconsin is hoping its direct admissions program this summer will get college information in the hands of students sooner. Direct admission lets high school students bypass the traditional admissions process by informing them which four-year universities and branch campuses have automatically admitted them. All the UW schools except Madison, La Crosse, Eau Claire and its branch campus at Barron County are participating.

“The synergy that comes from that student who happens to be in rural Wisconsin and gets a letter from UW-River Falls or UW-Green Bay: ‘You are admitted to our campus,’ that’s what’s going to … change, we can move the needle,” UW system President Jay Rothman said.

Peer-to-peer network

A coalition of top universities across the U.S. is seeking to recruit rural students into its classrooms.

Called the Small Town and Rural Student (STARS) network, the coalition is funded through the philanthropic support of billionaire banker Byron Trott, who grew up in rural Missouri and attended the University of Chicago. Through STARS, these elite public and private universities get funding to increase the number of rural students in their ranks.

UW-Madison is one of four public universities in the network, but it’s taking a slightly different approach from others, which are largely recruiting for themselves. Because UW-Madison already recruits well throughout Wisconsin, it was suggested the program could have a wider impact — in true “Wisconsin Idea” fashion — if it helped expand recruiting for all colleges across the state in rural Wisconsin, not just UW-Madison.

Jennifer Blazek, who leads a team of rural student ambassadors, grew up on a dairy farm and attended UW-La Crosse for her undergraduate degree before coming to UW-Madison. When she first attended college, she still had cows to care for, and the smaller feel of UW-La Crosse was perfect for her, Blazek said.

“Of course we represent UW-Madison that way, but our goal is not recruiting. We’re here to provide any option, and if Madison’s right for you, that’s great, we want you,” Blazek said. “We also know there’s many different options on where to go, and Madison’s not right for everybody.”

That’s part of College for Rural Wisconsin’s strategy, through informational posters and its in-person “College Roadshow” panels where high schoolers can hear directly from its rural student ambassadors on what college is like. While the group is rooted in UW-Madison, the goal is to give students the information they need to go anywhere they’d like, whether that’s another UW system school, a technical college or out of state.

Blazek has four student ambassadors, three from Wisconsin and one from Minnesota. All come from rural areas and share in the culture of being from small, tight-knit communities where everyone pitches in.

“When we talk about college, we try to include some of the more dry, helpful facts and stuff like that for the parents in the crowd,” said Jack Taylor, a UW-Madison rural student ambassador and urban studies student from Princeton, a city of 1,200 in central Wisconsin, where he helps his parents run their bakery. “But when we’re talking to kids, you do want to communicate more about what it means for them and their lives: It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun. It doesn’t have to be the best time of your life, but it is going to be an impactful time of your life.”

Resources in high schools

There’s a growing focus on getting information on higher education directly to rural high school students, most of whom will be first-generation college students or have limited experiences with higher education. At least two high-school based programs, Embark and Upward Bound, do that by hosting seminars or building college prep classes into their weekly schedules.

Tanya Cutsforth founded Embark a few years ago after leaving UW-Madison, where she worked to connect with students the summer before they started as freshmen. She started her career by helping students who were most at risk of dropping out or helping students through the process of re-entering college. She eventually created an early start program to teach new students how to adapt to college.

But only 20% of the incoming freshman class participated, despite scholarships making it easier to attend, she said.

Eventually Cutsforth thought, why not give students these resources while they were still in high school?

Cutsforth meets with students at their high schools, where she walks them through college processes such as applying and financial aid and teaches them skills for college success. She gets them thinking critically about what they want to study, which colleges or programs would be best for them and how to advocate for themselves.

It’s about “helping students drill down and home in and relating that back to them,” she said. “Are you doing this major because this interests you, that list of classes piques your interest, or because somebody’s told you that engineers make a lot of money? (We’re) really try to parse that out and give students the confidence to say, ‘This feels good to me,’ or ‘I want to come in and explore a little bit, too.’”

Upward Bound is in at least 23 Wisconsin high schools and held by seven UW system schools, guiding high school students who will be first-generation college students through preparing for college, starting as early as their freshman year. It’s federally mandated to serve low-income, first-generation and rural families.

The program started in the Adams and Juneau counties area in 2017. Now its leaders, Kayleen Betthauser and John Maki, mentor 64 students across five districts, which is about as many as they can handle.

Upward Bound leaders meet with high schoolers weekly, sometimes daily, depending on the school. Topics run the gamut. Early in high school, they might talk about career options then advance to preparing for the ACT and filling out federal financial aid forms once they get into their upper-class years, Betthauser said.

“If this was something that could be more available to other kids that would be cool, but also just encouraging kids in general, from a school administrative standpoint (to) just pursue some path in some way, even if it’s not college-based, it’s tech-based,” Maki said.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Source: College prep classes, panels are helping kids get to college

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