Residents in rural communities live lives that can be significantly different from their urban and suburban counterparts (McDonough, Gildersleeve, & Jarksy, 2010). Low population density results in a sense of geographic isolation that impacts many facets of rural life, from availability of basic utilities to the quality of schools and access to higher education. Often times, these various challenges collude to create barriers for rural students related to educational and occupational opportunities. Technology may serve as a means to aid rural students in higher educational attainment, but in order for this to occur, students and their families must have technological literacy and access. Before discussing ways to leverage technology in college admissions for rural students, it is critical to understand the broad challenges these communities and residents face regarding education and technology.
While rural students tend to graduate from high school at a higher rate, they tend to enroll in postsecondary education at a rate that is 6 percent lower than the national average and 8 percent lower than urban students (McDonough, Gildersleeve, & Jarsky, 2010). A study in Michigan revealed that, while postsecondary attendance rates were lower for low-income families in general, enrollments for the rural poor were notably lower than for poor families across the state (Cunningham, Erisman, & Looney, 2008). These challenges arise from low socioeconomic status and diminished social capital, which manifest through a number of factors including lower parental education levels, poorly funded and resourced public schools, and considerably fewer economic opportunities (Yang, 2010). Not surprisingly, these factors also impact the availability and familiarity with information technology.
Hirt, Murray, and McBee (2000) note that rural communities tend to be more disadvantaged with regards to all types of technology, particularly in public K-12 schools. Even when computers are available in schools or homes, these areas often lack the high-speed Internet connections upon which modern society and business increasingly rely. Stern, Adams, and Elsasser (2009) conducted a study of connection speeds in rural and urban areas and found that rural households were far less likely to have broadband access. As a result, residents in remote areas tend to exhibit diminished proficiency in using the Internet and understanding the ways it can positively affect their lives. In fact, the same study found that there is a significant, negative relationship between the presence of dial-up services and the number of activities undertaken by users, particularly those related to making important decisions.
College Admissions Challenges for Rural Students
For some time now, education leaders have worried that students in rural high schools do not receive adequate assistance in selecting a college (Supiano, 2010). One of the most pressing challenges facing this population is the lack of information available to students. Beyond information related to economic opportunities, rural students also tend to have limited access to information regarding the postsecondary admissions process. Students and families lack information about what high school courses are required for admission, the application process, cost of attendance, and available financial aid (Cunningham, Erisman, & Looney, 2008). Because students and families lack accurate and complete information, they are less likely to understand the true cost of attending college and what types of scholarships, grants, fee waivers, and other financial aid are available (McDonough & McClafferty, 2001). The geographic isolation of rural school districts only exacerbates this situation as they are less likely to have college and university administrators or admissions officers visit high schools. Therefore, human, information, and financial resources may be focused primarily on institutions in the local area (McDonough & McClafferty, 2001).
Technology in College Admissions
Due to the technology gap compared to urban and suburban places, older technologies may still be very relevant and widely used by rural populations. One way college admissions offices have expanded their presence is through the continued development of their websites. In particular, some have moved to providing web portals that are customized for each prospective student. After a prospective student has provided biographical and demographic data, they are presented with information related to specific academic programs or extracurricular activities that may be of particular interest, as well as scholarship opportunities for which the student may qualify. Such a portal can be used to provide contact information for specific faculty as well as general information regarding admissions, application deadlines, and financial aid (Cifarelli & Cullen, 2004). Institutions use these customized portals as a single source of information for the various processes that interrelate to admissions and enrollment, such as application timetables, financial aid forms, bursar accounts, and registration. Such a collection of information can be particularly helpful for students and parents unfamiliar or intimidated by the amount of information related to postsecondary education.
The November 2012 issue of the American Journal of Education highlighted how social networking has impacted education in a variety of ways, including professional development, teacher collaboration, and school reform. Additionally, virtual worlds and social networking sites have also emerged as ways admissions offices have used technology in recent years. In virtual worlds, digital representations of people and institutions are able to interact in real time, and as such, colleges have been establishing a virtual presence to provide information about the institution and opportunities to communicate with campus representatives (Bugeja, 2008). That said, virtual worlds have lost footing in recent years due to low adoption rates and liability related to user conduct. Therefore, institutions are also using social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to expand their Internet presence (Farrell, 2007). These sites allow students to connect with institutions and receive timely updates regarding campus events, as well as communicate with campus representatives. Given their interactive nature, savvy institutions employ current undergraduates to manage communication on these social networking sites so that the messages resonate better with prospective students.
Finally, simulating campus visits can be particularly useful for students who may not be able to travel to campus in person (Hodges & Barbuto, 2002). Many institutions have implemented virtual tours that consist of various features including photographs, video, text, and audio narratives that give students an opportunity to “see” the campus without actually traveling. The quality of the virtual tour is certainly dependent upon the technology employed, and institutions must consider the varied access to broadband Internet in rural places.
Putting It Together: Technology to Help Rural Students in College Admissions
The results of a study at Temple University (Hodges & Barbuto, 2002) are particularly helpful when understanding how colleges can leverage technology to reach rural students. The authors found that students reported campus visits as the most influential factor in the college decision process, which poses a challenge for students from remote, rural communities. Given the significance of campus visits, virtual tours seem to be an option that will be of great use, but it is important to create virtual tours that are engaging, otherwise they may provide little benefit. As much as possible, virtual tours should try to replicate on-site campus tours.
Additionally, remote populations require easy access to information, and providing the aforementioned “one stop” for all admissions, enrollment, and financial information could be particularly helpful for students and parents who are unfamiliar with the college selection process, as well as alleviate concerns related to lower technological literacy. Similarly, these websites should also provide electronic versions of all print publications so that prospective students are not forced to use the website for some information and request hard copies for other information.
Administrators must keep in mind, however, that no matter how elegant or comprehensive an admissions site is, if it is not accessible over slower dial-up connections, these resources may hold little value for rural students. Therefore, institutions must identify alternative ways to distribute electronic resources to rural students. CD/DVD-ROMs can contain vital information otherwise available on the website and allow colleges to create more advanced virtual tours without concern for bandwidth speeds. Additionally, these discs could contain electronic copies of course catalogs, academic and faculty directories, and application materials and can be replicated by local districts at little cost.
There is also great potential for reaching remote populations through social networking websites, thus providing greater access to admissions representatives. The caveat to relying too heavily on social networking websites for reaching rural students is that the openness of such sites may actually cause greater confusion for students who are less familiar with social networking. Therefore, it is incumbent upon institutions to monitor user activity and to ensure that institutionally generated content is done so in a purposeful and organized manner.
Recently, colleges and universities have begun to leverage technologies in new and exciting ways as a means of reaching more students. These features can be particularly useful in connecting with rural students, but it is important that the technology is implemented in a way that overcomes some of the technological and cultural barriers that confront these students. Action on the part of colleges and universities, in addition to targeted and purposeful public policies, can make great strides toward closing the rural college access gap.
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