A just-introduced bipartisan Senate bill would create a $60 million pilot program to help rural students attain their higher education goals and connect with local job opportunities.
The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act, introduced January 8 by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire), would encourage rural schools — including community colleges — businesses and other stakeholders to partner and develop new strategies to guide more students into postsecondary education and to prepare them for available jobs.
“Far too many young people in rural communities struggle to find higher education opportunities that align with the needs of businesses in their local communities,” Hassan said in a statement.
Rural students typically graduate from high school at higher rates than urban students, and at about the same rate as students in suburbs, according to the lawmakers. However, only 59 percent of rural graduates go directly to college, compared to 62 percent of urban graduates and 67 percent of suburban graduates.
Maine mirrors those statistics, Collins said. Two out of three schools in the state are in rural communities and serve more than half of Maine’s students. Nearly 90 percent of Maine students graduate from high school, but 62 percent of them enroll in college immediately. And only 30 percent of students earn a two- or four-year degree, according to state information.
A holistic approach
The lawmakers say the bill takes a holistic approach to help students, beginning at least in high school through activities such as exposing students and families to college campuses, courses, programs and internships, and showing them various career pathways. It also would provide information on student aid to them, many of whom are first in their families to attend college.
Meanwhile, employers would help determine the credentials — a college degree, skilled trade credential or professional certificate — that local students need to land jobs. To help students sample potential careers, employers could provide work-based learning opportunities such as apprenticeships and internships, and cover transportation costs or the cost of Internet access for online opportunities, according to the bill.
The partnerships could also help nontraditional students, who may have at one time attended college but didn’t attain a credential, according to Collins.
Sen. Susan Collins comments on her new bill to help rural students.
Aside from challenges in enrolling in college, rural students also face barriers in completing. The bill encourages partners to find solutions, Collins said. She cited the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative in Maine. It includes local universities and colleges — a community college among them — and works with area businesses and entrepreneurs, who offer internships and provide mentors.
Kudos from stakeholders
Rural community college leaders face unique challenges, noted Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.
“One challenge is the lack of resources to effectively identify and compete for grant awards that fund programs and services designed to keep students on track to complete their education, obtain a job earning a family-sustaining wage, and contribute to the local economy,” said Bumphus, who commended the senators on the bill.
Several other organizations seeking to help rural students support the legislation, including BDT & Company, which two years ago launched an initiative to improve postsecondary and career outcomes for rural students through college and career advising and financial support.
Under the program, grants — which would go to consortia comprising local schools, higher education institutions, regional economic agencies and community organizations — would be for at least $1 million and require a 20 percent match in nonfederal funds.