Clearing the Path to Success for America’s Rural Students: Meet rootEd Alliance

Students at Union high School participate in college signing day last spring.

by Noa Meyer, rootEd Alliance President

Kathleen* always wanted to go to college, but did not know where to start the process going into her senior year of high school in Franklin County, Missouri. Her mom passed away when she was young, and her scattered home life since made the prospect of applying to college complicated. Then a new college advisor at her high school offered to work together to come up with a solution. Through weekly meetings and persistent follow-ups, Kathleen and her advisor worked through each obstacle, demystifying the steps along the way. Together, they decoded the often onerous financial aid process, diligently filled out forms every week, talked about Kathleen’s career hopes and identified scholarships. By April, Kathleen had offers from several different colleges. This fall, she enrolled at a private university in St. Louis, where she’s focused on studying for a career in the healthcare field and playing sports as a student athlete.

This simple yet powerful counsel was provided to every student in Kathleen’s graduating class. As a result, her rural high school saw a significant jump in the number of students starting postsecondary programs this fall. They are beating the odds for the millions of rural high school graduates across the country, only a third of whom are currently enrolled in college.

Rural America is home to a third of the country’s high school students, but lacks the infrastructure and resources to support students in their pursuit of college or job opportunities after high school. Many of these kids have limited access to health care and almost one in four are living in poverty. Guidance counselors are doing everything they can to keep students focused and on track, but they often face a triage situation: so overwhelmed by the many challenges students face every day, they rarely have a chance to offer advice about the future.

Read one student’s story.

In more densely populated parts of America, a web of support provided by nonprofit organizations, foundations, and public services often helps to fill these gaps with critical resources and programming. The difference in rural areas is stark: these communities receive less than 5% of total U.S. philanthropic spending. The net result is that rural students often lack the support and guidance they need to explore college and career options, and only a third end up enrolled in a two- or four-year college. With two-thirds of jobs now requiring some level of postsecondary education or training, changing these odds isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s an economic necessity.

That’s why we created rootEd Alliance, a collaborative philanthropic effort to address the most challenging obstacles to success after high school for students in rural America. We want every one of these students to get the training or education they need to pursue their dreams.

rootEd Alliance aims to tackle the complex challenges facing rural students with a holistic strategy, grounded in research and data, that has the potential to meaningfully improve the college and career outcomes for these students and their communities.

Our approach focuses on three core hypotheses: first, students need great advice to help them make informed decisions about their life after high school. Second, they need to be exposed to the breadth of college and career opportunities as well as to the clear connection between continuing their education after high school and enhancing their career options. And finally, rural students must have support in overcoming financial barriers to postsecondary education and training.

To bring these ideas to life, we’re partnering with a network of funders, school districts, colleges, and nonprofit organizations like the Ayers Foundation, which placed the advisor at Kathleen’s high school. We take a whole school approach, working with every student to explore the best options available to them — whether by helping with entrance exams, applications, and financial aid, connecting them with job shadowing opportunities and internships, or securing scholarships that cover the cost of their education. We’re also working with local community colleges to ensure that the many rural students who enroll are able to transition seamlessly and get across the finish line to graduation.

Students like Kathleen have enormous potential, they just need the right support to unlock it. Through rootEd Alliance, we want to shine a light on the strengths of rural students. By doing so, we are confident that these talented future leaders can bring their dreams to life.

Learn more about rootEd Alliance at rootedalliance.org

*Student’s name has been changed for privacy

rootEd Alliance is addressing the most challenging obstacles to success after high school for students in rural America. Learn more at rootedalliance.org