OPINION: With a little extra help and support, rural students can overcome daunting barriers to higher education

For many rural students, higher education means waking up before the sun four days a week, then driving an hour through cornfields or pine forests to reach the only college for 100 miles.

It’s a far cry from the awkward parental drop-off, search for elusive twin XL sheets and Olivia Rodrigo wall poster most people associate with the back-to-college season.

For the more than 33 million people living in education deserts, college-going can be a drastically different experience. In addition to long commutes, homesickness and culture shock, many students arrive underprepared in key subjects like math and science.

Their new college calendar may not be conducive to seasonal demand for jobs harvesting, hunting or fighting wildfires. They often grapple with local or even familial skepticism about the value of higher education, especially in areas where the main industries have not historically required a college degree and where students who leave town for college prove unlikely to return.

For all of these reasons, despite high school graduation rates similar to those in suburbs and cities, rural college-going rates are much lower. For rural students, the calculation about going to and staying in college is very different. Montana is seeking to make that calculation a little more positive through a new program, Montana 10.

Consider Baker, Montana, population 1,800. For high schoolers there dreaming of a college education, the nearest option, Dawson Community College, is about 70 miles away.

The nearest four-year institution, Dickinson State University, is 100 miles away, across the border in North Dakota. Students seeking a traditional four-year college experience in their home state must travel more than 225 miles to Montana State University in Billings.

That’s why these students need a little extra help both adjusting to and staying in school, and why they need someone like Julie Pettitt-Booth, executive director of new student services at MSU Billings, who understands what they’re going through as they adjust to college and the big city for the first time.

Related: Rural students are the least likely to go to college

Coming from tight-knit communities, many rural students struggle with isolation and homesickness, as well as financial constraints. Such challenges are especially prevalent for students coming from low-income homes, for students who are the first in their families to attend college and for those who have especially long commutes to school.

Each challenge makes it easier to contemplate dropping out. That’s where Pettitt-Booth and college support staff across the state come in: providing one-on-one care to help students stay focused and clear those hurdles.

If a comprehensive student support program can work in Montana the way that it has worked in other places, the state could see more degrees and less debt, spurring economic stability for rural towns and the state as a whole.

The Montana University System’s new program called Montana 10 offers academic, social and financial supports designed to help low-income, rural and Native American students get acclimated to college, stay enrolled and reach graduation on time.

To do this, Montana 10 simultaneously offers a combination of student support services — advising, career planning, academic help in first-year math and English classes — and financial supports like textbook assistance and scholarships.

In exchange, students must enroll full-time, complete their federal financial aid paperwork and meet with program staff regularly to stay on track.

The goal is simple: graduate students.

At the heart of the program are advisers who understand what students need both logistically and emotionally and who recognize what it means (good and bad) for a student, a family and a community when students leave for college.

They also help students navigate unique financial aid situations, such as how to qualify when their family’s assets are all farm equipment or when their parents live off the grid.

These advisers know how to help students who want to leave their small towns behind as well as those who commute daily from the homesteads where they plan to spend their whole lives.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: Why rural students like me are ‘meant to be here’ in college

Building students’ sense of belonging, along with financial and academic supports, can help students stay in college semester after semester. Montana 10 follows a tradition of comprehensive approaches to student success that have been proven effective in rigorous research studies in improving students’ likelihood of staying in college and earning a credential.

There’s also a big payoff: According to Montana state officials, of Montana jobs paying more than $50,000 a year created between 2011 and 2021, 63 percent went to degree holders.

In eastern Montana, the most rural part of the state and home to towns like Baker, more than 60 percent of high-demand occupations have workforce shortages, especially in vital fields like education and healthcare.

If a comprehensive student support program can work in Montana the way that it has worked in other places, the state could see more degrees and less debt, spurring economic stability for rural towns and the state as a whole.

That means illuminating a winding path through the Rockies toward a postsecondary degree. A path that will lead to more teachers, nurses, engineers and tradesmen.

Rural colleges matter. When they’re the only option for a hundred miles, getting students in the door, and even more importantly, keeping them enrolled and helping them graduate, can have far-reaching benefits.

Alyssa Ratledge is a research associate at MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that is conducting an evaluation of Montana 10.

This story about rural students and college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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