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Rural recruits: How admissions offices at Minnesota’s private colleges are expanding their reach

For colleges and universities located in more urban areas, persuading students from Greater Minnesota to leave the familiarities and comforts of a small town and move to the city isn’t always easy.

Oliver Wolyniec is well on his way to majoring in international relations and minoring in Russian, with a study-abroad trip to Russia lined up for this spring.
Courtesy of Oliver Wolyniec

Growing up in Worthington, Oliver Wolyniec first heard about Carleton College from some close family friends who had gone there themselves. The prospect piqued his interest because it met his criteria of offering a high-quality education and of not being too far away from home, he said.

While his parents didn’t put Carleton on his radar, they were vested in his pursuit of a postsecondary degree. His mother had a four-year teaching degree from the Iowa-based Northwestern College; and his father had the equivalent of an associate degree from the postsecondary institution he attended in Poland.

But Wolyniec knew he’d have to find a way to make it work financially. So he spent some time searching scholarship options on the college’s website and came across one reserved specifically for low- and moderate-income rural students: the Fritch Scholarship. It equips recipients with a $10,000 annual award to cover tuition and help reduce the burden of other out-of-pocket expenses.

Now a junior at Carleton, Wolyniec says he recently had the opportunity to thank the donor of the Fritch Scholarship in person.

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“He was from Greater Minnesota as well, so I think he understood the difficulties that, obviously, a liberal arts school can present for a number of students,” Wolyniec said. “It’s played a huge role in where I am right now.”

He’s well on his way to majoring in international relations and minoring in Russian, with a study-abroad trip to Russia lined up for this spring. But he hasn’t forgotten how intense making the leap from a rural community to a college campus felt not all that long ago.

“My first term on campus, I could tell who had been in the highest, most demanding high school programs — just in terms of who made the adjustment quicker,” he said, noting he took some college-level courses at his public school, but still had to “wrap my head around the rigors” of classes at Carleton.

Like Wolyniec, other rural students often qualify for financial aid and supports earmarked for low-income and/or first-generation students. But the push at many private colleges and universities in Minnesota to attract and retain students based on their rural status, specifically, is a lesser-known facet of ensuring equitable access.

“There has been a push, more recently, on rural areas. Partially because … as a higher education industry, for so long we were really focused on urban areas and underrepresented populations within that context and kind of forgot — for a little while — that there are many other groups or populations that are underrepresented in higher education,” said Ellen Johnson, vice president of enrollment management at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.  “So it’s exciting for me to see this as something that, nationally, people are starting to pay attention to as well.”

Easing the financial burden

Carleton’s Fritch Scholarship recently made mention in a Wall Street Journal article titled “For Colleges, A Rural Reckoning.” The article said elite colleges are getting more strategic in how they recruit from more conservative, rural areas as recent surveys show that President Donald Trump’s constituents are increasingly skeptical about “the cost and worth of college.”

Ellen Johnson
Ellen Johnson

While there does seem to be a renewed momentum behind recruiting rural students  locally, it appears the motivating factors for many of Minnesota’s private colleges and universities can’t necessarily be pegged to the current political environment. It’s more so a matter of  reducing barriers that are both common among underrepresented populations and unique to those from rural communities. For instance, college recruiters have less incentive to travel to smaller communities beyond the suburbs.

“It doesn’t take long, in admissions operations, to realize that if you’re maximizing your dollars on recruitment — where you travel, whom you can visit — you’re focusing a lot of the attention around urban areas,” said Paul Thiboutot, vice president and dean of admissions at Carleton College. “So the question becomes: Well, how do you still get some of the stars that are appearing in a small town in South Dakota, or Wyoming, or in Minnesota?”

The other main reason he and his colleagues started paying closer attention to rural applicants, he says, was because those who do apply may have fine credentials, but their applications can easily get lost when compared with those of applicants who came from urban high schools that had more diverse course offerings and extracurricular activities.  

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“Those kids have more opportunities than some of the kids from rural areas,” he said. “Then you don’t want to be biased against them.”

Within this framework, Thiboutot says they created the Fritch Scholarship to let rural students know that they are wanted at the college. And since rural students tend to come from low-income or moderate-income households, he says the scholarship doubles as a tool to address “the sticker price shock.”

“The economic factors of going to a small private college, or private college in general, are a little more foreboding for them,” he said. “They don’t have as much parlance with how colleges might do financial aid.”

Now a few years old, the Fritch Scholarship supports five new students each year, through an endowment. Seeing the value in having a scholarship exclusively designed for rural students, the college expanded it using funds from the general financial aid budget so that such support now reaches 10 to 12 new students each year.

At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, there isn’t a rural-specific scholarship, says Cal Mosley, vice president for admissions. There are, however, a number of endowed scholarships that come from donors in rural areas who have placed parameters around those dollars so that they only benefit kids from rural communities who want to study a certain thing.

“So we match up those kids,” he said. “And, oftentimes, it’s the kids who will know about the scholarships. They’ll bring it to our attention because they’ll know that their aunt went to school with this person who gave Saint John’s the scholarship.”

When he first started working in admissions — in Oregon in the ’60s — he says there were a lot more federal dollars available to assist postsecondary institutions in recruiting rural students. Since many of those programs have been done away with, he says, the burden is now on individual institutions that feel strongly enough to invest in rural recruitment on their own.

At Saint Ben’s/Saint John’s, Mosley says his recruiters are committed to visiting every high school in Minnesota each year. They don’t always reach their goal, he says, but it does mean they’re visiting high schools each year with senior classes with no more than a dozen students. To help make this mission more feasible, he has one staff member who’s based in Duluth and another who’s based in Brainerd.

In terms of retainment, he says his admissions staff members pay close attention to who their rural kids are — just as they do with all of their first-generation and other underrepresented students. They’re more intentional about connecting rural students with resources and opportunities on campus that they may not think to even ask about on their own, such as internship options.

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“Maybe they haven’t thought about an internship because their notion is they go back home and work on the dairy farm, or the ranch, or their small-town business,” he said, noting his staff might encourage them to consider a summer internship with a place like 3M, Cargill or Best Buy.

Al Cotrone, vice president for enrollment at the University of St. Thomas, brings an even greater sense of urgency to rural recruitment.

“Our desire to have an increased number of students from Greater Minnesota is significant. As a state, we export more high school students to universities in other states than we import,” he said. “A key part of correcting that is targeting students from rural Minnesota.”

His office, though, is taking a different approach to attracting rural students via scholarships. It launched a new recruitment campaign this past fall — backed by a $50 million gift that’ll fund 80 students over the next four years — that emphasizes leadership and entrepreneurship, an area they’ve found many students from rural areas are interested in.

“I guess what I’m trying to do is marry those two activities,” he said, noting his staff assigned to cover more rural areas of the state will be able to use these new campaign resources, even though they’re not exclusively for rural students.

Addressing intimidation factors

For colleges and universities located in more urban areas, persuading students from Greater Minnesota to leave the familiarities and comforts of a small town and move to the city isn’t always easy. In response, many have focused on on-campus supports for these students so that they feel supported in undergoing such a big transition.

At Augsburg University, Devon Ross, director of undergraduate admissions, says they have one of the strongest scholarship programs for “rural, small-town students who are participating in college readiness programs” like Upward Bound. He also sends his associate director, Shonna Fulford, to higher education fairs in outstate Minnesota to maximize their footprint each fall.

But, more recently, his office has been focusing on building up campus supports that extend beyond financial aid as they look to recruit more rural and small-town students to campus. That means engaging in conversations with folks in the orientation department, residential life, the advising department and the like to address the particular concerns rural students may have.

“Being an urban institution … getting rural and small-town students to come to Augsburg can be difficult if they’re concerned about the environment,” he said. “So we talk about the fact that Augsburg is a small town, right here in Minneapolis. But they can also take advantage of what the city has to offer.”

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To help put students’ concerns at ease, he says they are intentional in pairing prospective students with students who come from similar background during campus tours, so they can speak to making the transition and how it’s a manageable and safe environment.

Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Hamline Univeristy, says she’s paying attention to rural student representation as well. Looking at first-year class enrollment data, she says about 20 percent come from what they classify as “Greater Minnesota market,” meaning anything beyond the third-ring suburbs.

But it’s “a more difficult market to penetrate,” she says, noting there’s often less name recognition the farther out you get from the Twin Cities core. It’s a task made more difficult by the fact that rural schools often struggle to afford school counselors who might suggest a place like Hamline to a qualified candidate.

In terms of recruiting more rural students, Xiong-Chan says the focus of her office isn’t quite that specific. Rather, they are building up programs that are geared toward attracting and retaining first-generation students because they found this was often a common denominator among their various underrepresented populations — be it race, economic status or geographical location.

For instance, they run a program for first-generation students that connects them with more than financial aid. It includes exclusive invitations to panels and guest speakers, and events to meet with other first-generation students and faculty, along with additional information on how to navigate the higher education system.

She suspects they reach a fair number of rural students through such programs. And, as demographics continue to change, she suspects it’s a good strategy to focus on first-generation status rather than rural status, specifically, moving forward.

“In the last 10 years, Minnesota has seen a significant change in the demographics of what rural Minnesota is,” she said, noting it’s “less white, less populated.”

Where rural isn’t rare

Not all private colleges and universities in Minnesota are feeling pressure to amp up efforts to recruit more rural students. At the St. Peter-based Gustavus Adolphus College, for instance, admissions leaders say they used to have a rural-specific scholarship, but have since moved away from that in favor of meeting the financial needs of all students.

Historically, Gustavus has never has any issue attracting rural students, says Rich Aune, the college’s associate vice president and dean of admissions. So having a pool of scholarship dollars earmarked for rural students didn’t really feel necessary.

“Thirty-six to 40 percent of every class we have is from that basic category: rural,” he said. “It’s our bread and butter, in some respects.”

They boast a homey feel, with a tight-knit sense of community fostered by the fact that most students live on or near campus. It’s the sort of thing that’s compatible with many of the students they actively recruit, from Owatonna to Blue Earth to Pipestone each year.

“We visit all of those schools in Minnesota,” Aune said. “So the strategy of recruiting non-metro has pretty much remained the same.”

There is one new thing that they’re hoping will help attract students who fall outside of their usual scope, though: a newly launched virtual tour that’s available on the college’s website.

St. Scholastica is another private school that’s not really worried about its ability to attract rural students. About 42 percent of this year’s incoming class came from rural areas, says Johnson, adding connecting with these students has “really always been a focus of what we do.”

She says a number of folks on her admission team — including herself — grew up in rural communities, so it’s top of mind in that regard, as well. Even so, in the early stages of the application review process, she says they train staff to be mindful of things like not penalizing rural students for not having access to advanced courses; and to filter out any biases they hold against various student activities.

“For me, it’s an educational thing that we need to do across our colleges and universities— about what is the value of different  things that students do,” she said, adding it’s about “making sure that we don’t make assumptions that just because someone came from a rural area and was involved in 4H or that sort of thing they wouldn’t be interested in a liberal arts college just because we don’t have ag. That’s not true.”

A place like St. Scholastica also has the advantage of being located in a tourist town that’s a whole lot closer to more rural towns than its urban competitors — a part of the college’s identify, by design, says Johnson.

Speaking of the founders, she explained, “Part of the reason they wanted to start an education institution in Duluth was to ensure that young women — it was all women at the time — that were from rural areas had the opportunity to be educated.”

For Kalyssa Reinhardt — a sophomore who’s completing her first year on campus, after taking two year’s worth of college credits while still enrolled at Northeast Range High School in Babbitt — St. Scholastica is the perfect fit.

Kalyssa Reinhardt
Courtesy of Kalyssa Reinhardt
Kalyssa Reinhardt: “I want to stay close to my family. I want to stay in a small-town situation.”

“It was a very homey college,” she said, noting she’s a first-generation student who came from a graduating class of only 27 kids.

Moving to a college town with so many people was a bit intimidating at first, she said. But she’s happy with her decision, because it allowed her to stay close to family as she pursues her nursing degree, then midwifery credentials.

“I want to stay close to my family,” she said, sharing her plans for after graduation. “I want to stay in a small-town situation.”