Reflecting on Rural Conversations: Nurturing Educational Equity in Northern New England

June 7, 2024
Martin Van Der Werf speaking at Rural Conversations.

Voices from across Northern New England and beyond converged, physically and virtually, at Rural Conversations, a hybrid event hosted in May 2024 by Campus Compact for New Hampshire to explore the current landscape of educational equity in rural areas. Participants from K-12 education, higher education, and community development sectors gathered in-person and online through a live stream from the Granite Edvance conference facility in Concord, NH, to hear from the event guest speakers and exchange ideas for expanding rural access.

Under the theme of ‘Convening Northern New England Around Rural Access’, Stephanie Lesperance, the Chief Strategy Officer at Campus Compact for New Hampshire, provided context highlighting the event’s significance in the region. Lesperance specified that 47% of New Hampshire’s population lives in rural areas, making New Hampshire the 9th most rural state in the nation. More than half of New Hampshire’s K-12 schools are in rural areas, and roughly half of the state’s colleges and universities are also rurally located.

“Everyone in this room understands why there are barriers facing our rural communities,” Lesperance began. “Families have less equitable access to public preschool. Schools have challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers and school leaders. Students have unequal access to resources outside of school.”

Marjorie Betley, co-founder of the STARS College Network and Deputy Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago, was Rural Conversation’s first guest speaker, who shared insights about innovative programming for rural students.

Marjorie Betley presenting at Rural Conversations.
Marjorie Betley presenting at Rural Conversations.

STARS, which stands for Small Town and Rural Students, is a college network dedicated to working with students from small-town and rural America to enroll in, succeed at, and graduate from the undergraduate program of their choice within the STARS Network of partner universities and colleges. Betley emphasized that although rural students have a higher graduation rate than suburban and urban communities, early engagement is key.

“If students are not hearing about postsecondary education until high school, it’s too late” Betley shared. “We bring the college fair to the students. On-campus programs are the best way for students to test-drive the college experience.” The STARS College Network boasts a remarkable retention rate of 96% for their rural students, surpassing the national postsecondary average of 76.5%, owing to the comprehensive support provided during students’ transition to college.

Julia Cunningham, the Director of Rural Engagement at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Communications and Outreach, described the evolving landscape of rural education policy at the federal level.

Rural Conversations participant connecting with Julia Cunningham.
Rural Conversations participant connecting with Julia Cunningham.

Cunningham highlighted a big-picture goal discussed during the White House’s inaugural Rural Communities and Action event in May 2024. This initiative, titled ‘Raise the Bar: Lead the World,’ was introduced by Secretary Cardona in January 2023 with the aim of providing rural schools and communities with the necessary support, technical assistance, and evidence-based strategies to deliver a high-quality education to their students. The initiative focuses on four key areas that establish an equitable foundation for student learning, with specific goals that include addressing the shortage of educators and ensuring access to mental health resources for students.

Martin Van Der Werf, the Director of Editorial and Education Policy at Georgetown University, continued to explore the intersection of rural education and workforce development, drawing on insights from his report ‘Small Towns Big Opportunities,’ published by the Georgetown Center on Education. The center serves as a hub for compiling workforce and higher education data, examining topics like the return on investment (ROI) of postsecondary degrees, and projecting future educational needs and skill requirements. Van Der Werf presented workforce data from the report, revealing that the likelihood of securing a good job in rural America is nearly comparable to that in urban areas, challenging the common misconception of limited job opportunities in rural communities.

Figure 1. from the Small Towns, Big Opportunities Report
Figure 1. from the Small Towns, Big Opportunities Report.

The report also found that individuals with bachelor’s degrees or higher significantly increase their chances of having a good job in rural areas. Even those with lower levels of educational attainment have better jobs in rural America than their urban counterparts. However, a significant challenge in rural communities is the comparatively lower educational attainment levels among residents.

Figure 5. from the Small Towns, Big Opportunities Report
Figure 5. from the Small Towns, Big Opportunities Report.

Van Der Werf underscored that while bachelor’s degrees are valuable, they are not the sole metric for enhancing educational attainment in rural areas. Any form of postsecondary education or training enhances the likelihood of rural workers securing quality employment and having a good job.

Martin Van Der Werf speaking at Rural Conversations.
Martin Van Der Werf speaking at Rural Conversations.

“When we’re looking at the surveys, when we’re looking at what employers are looking for, they’re looking for education beyond high school” Van Der Werf noted. “So that can be a certificate or certification, an associate’s degree, a license. We consider all of that to be education.” Van Der Werf proposed policy recommendations, such as promoting micro-credentialing and non-degree credentials, to better equip the rural workforce for local job opportunities.

Although educational deficiencies exist across all levels of educational attainment, Rural Conversations provided a platform for rural educators and leaders in Northern New England to convene, exchange ideas, and foster collaboration to address educational challenges. Each guest speaker offered actionable strategies and recommendations for advancing educational equity, creating an ongoing dialogue about the ways we can further uplift and empower rural communities.

Recordings from Rural Conversations are available to watch on Campus Compact for New Hampshire’s official YouTube channel.