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One path to easing the rural counselor shortage

Their students are twice as likely to be on track for a career making a living wage.

Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: The rootEd Alliance’s big mentorship push.
02: Roadside Attractions: A $2.2B rural bet might not pay off.

Angelo State University (Courtesy)

01: Postcards

A senior at rural Anson High School in west-central Texas, Eddie Miller wasn’t sure how he was going to get to college.

Like most students, Miller was concerned about paying for tuition … but that was just one cost of college. He had to also worry about how to also support his uncle, grandparents and younger sibling while enrolled full-time.

He already worked five days a week at Subway. At first, it seemed impossible. But working with Brooke Bolterman, an advisor through the national college-advising nonprofit rootEd Alliance, Miller was able to seriously consider his options for after high school.

The rootEd Alliance drove him and three other students to do a tour of Angelo State, a public university less than two hours away.

Bolterman helped Miller fill out his FAFSA, which helped him qualify for significant federal financial aid, and she helped him cover the $200 cost of applying for on-campus housing.

“I think I would be spiraling out of control without her game plan for me,” Miller says. “The impact it had on me was great, and I’ve known other students here who have gone to her for not just plans after high school, but also their plans now.”

Senior Eddie Miller worked with rootEd advisor Brooke Bolterman to set his postsecondary plans. (Courtesy Bolterman)

The organization is trying to counteract the lack of counselors in rural schools nationwide: forty-eight states are above the recommended ratio of having one for every 250 students, according to the American School Counselor Association.

There are roughly 18,000 students working with rootEd advisors in almost 200 high schools, and 62% of those surveyed say their advisor was “the most helpful person in their life” as they planned for after high school. 

The results since launching in 2018 are promising: 82% of rootEd students are on track to secure a career that provides a living wage, compared to 41% of working 21 to 24-year-olds currently making a living wage.

Many of them are in rural areas that often have less access to advisors, says Noa Meyer, president of the rootEd Alliance, which is increasingly focusing on helping those students match with nearby in-demand industries.

“We know how many rural students want to or choose to stay local but need more training than they are getting straight out of high school,” Meyer says.

“For a lot of students, they think their options are really binary: You either enlist in the military, or go to college.”

To better help students, rootEd is training its advisors to learn from local organizations, such as chambers of commerce and rotary clubs.

For example, Bolterman’s job is run through Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas, which helps: “Being an employee of workforce, we have a lot of those employer connections and community connections already.”

In other places, it can sometimes be difficult to get mentors fully aware of those opportunities, says Lisa MacDougall, a rootEd office and vice president, adding that it can be “ a very time intensive process” for school districts to do on their own. 

While working in Missouri, for example, rootEd found that the state had made serious investments in HVAC, welding, and medical programs at various community colleges, but the classes still weren’t getting filled.

They had nailed the programming part, but had failed to effectively market the programs to the students they were meant to serve.

“Nobody was telling the students about these opportunities,” MacDougall says. “The advisors became that missing link, the center of all that knowledge, where we can tell them what jobs are open and what those positions pay.” 

In the 2022 school year, rootED schools saw a 13% increase in enrollment for credential training or degree-attaining education programs, at the same time that rural schools saw a 4% decline nationally. 

Another surprise? Their work has been surprisingly welcome, Meyer says, ““despite a lot of reporting around the insurality of rural communities.” The truth is, the help is sorely needed.

“Guidance counselors have their finger in the dam … they are eager to provide support themselves, but are so slammed with confronting the realities of poverty that their students are living in — from homelessness to food insecurity to addiction, whether it’s the students themselves or the adults in their lives.”

So far, rootEd has only operated in four states — Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, and Idaho — but those federal dollars have gone to help them and other advising efforts in 25 states.

To keep improving things, states and schools have to work together to help their communities holistically, even if that means thinking past just earning a high school diploma, Meyer says.

“This work, and the impact, is only sustainable if public systems really think about their longer-term commitment to the students.” 

As for Miller? The senior from Anson is now planning to study psychology at Angelo State this coming fall, which would make him the first in his family to attend college.

Even better: There’s a Subway on campus, which means he should be able to transfer his job over and, if all goes to plan, graduate debt-free while still supporting his relatives back home.

Getting to that solution would have been a lot harder without his advisor’s help.

“If someone like Brooke was at every school, I think we would have a lot more people in college, and a lot more better minds out there running the world,” he says.

Eddie Miller and some of his classmates pose while on a campus tour of Angelo State. (Courtesy Bolterman)

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Education Design Lab announces its new project. The national nonprofit announced that a new cohort of 13 rural higher ed institutions across 11 states will receive a $50,000 incentive to work with them in designing curriculum that prioritizes the new majority rural learners — a diverse population of non-traditional students that are often navigating both work and school while pursuing postsecondary education.

  • The $2.2 billion bet on rural colleges. A federal loan program meant to help may actually be hurting them, as David Jesse writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education. While those dollars come with a lower interest than private lenders would offer, they are practically turning Uncle Sam into a lender of last resort for new construction projects that may not actually help rural schools in the long run.

  • Strategies for expanding rural pathways. Inclusive economic development, remote opportunities and maximizing local strengths are three tactics that higher ed leaders can use to help students from rural communities, according to a March report from Jobs of the Future. 

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