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How to raise rural enrollment in higher education? Go local.

LAWRENCE COUNTY, Tenn. — You could easily find reasons Kali Lindsay should not be in college right now. She lost her mother at age 8. At 16, for her own good, she left home.

To support herself (she moved in with an older brother) in high school she worked 30 hours a week at an Arby’s next to a weed-studded field in a retail park, earning $8.20 an hour. She closed, at 1 a.m., forcing a choice: Go to school exhausted or skip classes and learn the material on her own.

Lindsay also faced a huge cultural obstacle — geography.

She is from Clinton, Mo., (pop. 8,947), where college-going is not a given. No one in her family went. Few around her did, either. “I didn’t know how anything worked,” she said.

From a young age, students in suburban and urban communities marinate in college-going, even college-competitive, environments. That is often missing in rural America, where communities like Lindsay’s can treat high school as a capstone, not a steppingstone.

Federal data shows that less than 30 percent of rural residents age 25 and up have an associate degree or higher; more than 43 percent of urban residents do. That’s a problem: Two-thirds of all jobs and 80 percent of all “good” jobs (paying a median wage of $65,000) demand a postsecondary credential, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

This long-standing gap troubled Jim Ayers, a businessman raised in rural Decatur County, Tenn. He started the Ayers Foundation in 1999 and through it has been quietly changing how people in some rural communities think about postsecondary education.

Given the educational and economic divide between rural and nonrural America, this may be the most important college access program you’ve never heard of.

The foundation’s results in several small, rural counties are eye-popping. By 2019, Ayers had helped impoverished Perry County, Tenn., reach an 86 percent college-going rate, the highest in the state, according to government figures. At Decatur County’s Riverside High School, where the foundation has been working since 1999, postsecondary enrollment (including military and technical training) has risen from 24 percent to 84 percent. In two other counties, three rural high schools reached that enrollment for 76 percent, 82 percent and 87 percent of their 2019 graduates, the foundation reports.

Such performances have attracted a national partner, ­rootEd Alliance, a two-year-old philanthropic collaborative, which has taken the Ayers-style model to other rural communities in Tennessee, Missouri and, now, Texas.

For years, Janet Ayers, the foundation’s president and Jim’s wife, said they resisted pleas to work in other counties. “It was not sustainable for us to serve everyone all over the place,” she said. But when former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam urged a meeting with rootEd, “it opened our eyes.” Now, through rootEd, the model inspired by Ayers is in 23 rural high schools and has partnerships with four community colleges. RootEd took the model to 13 rural Texas high schools this fall and plans to expand to 30 by 2023.

Jim Ayers was not a stellar student, and neither of his parents had a college degree. But Ayers said his father, a sawmill logger and farmworker, “told me right quick he did not intend for me to grow up and work like him all his life.” Having done farm work as a teen, Ayers agreed.

The accounting degree he earned from Memphis State University, he said, opened the door that enabled him to build a fortune, first with a network of nursing homes and then by acquiring a bank, now Tennessee’s third-largest.

A college-going expectation, he said, is powerful. Yet, in places where many people live within a half-hour drive of their birthplace, it’s also fraught. Ayers said parents have told him that they don’t “want their children to get more education than they had because it would make them look bad.” Or, as one rural student put it, classmates don’t go to college “because they don’t know how and their parents didn’t.” Also, the student said, “kids in friend groups that don’t go to college tend not to go to college.”

Changing such mind-sets is not easy. But it is happening.

The Ayers Foundation model is ridiculously simple. It starts with putting a counselor — someone raised rural and connected to the community — in a local high school to help every student craft a career plan and then guide them through the tasks required to apply for — and pay for — a postsecondary degree.

There are a few important details, however. One is that while many college-access programs focus on helping high-performers reach top schools, this model goes broad. The goal is for everyone to have a path.

Students may aim for a four-year university. They may attend a local community college or technical school. They may choose the military. (About 85 percent enroll at two- or four-year colleges; about 75 percent of those earn a degree or credential.)

Another feature of the model is how personal and deep the help is. The counselors, who work full time and earn $50,000 to $65,000 a year, including benefits, stop by to check in with students stocking the dairy case at Walmart or working a shift at a Sonic Drive-In. They answer a student’s 1 a.m. text right away because, said Paige Cyrus-Ham, a counselor at Reed Springs High School in Reed Springs, Mo., (pop. 873), “I know the student is looking at their phone right now.”

The model, in other words, is Cyrus-Ham, masked and socially distanced, in her office at 7 p.m. on a fall Thursday helping Kylie Eubanks and her mother complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They couldn’t meet with Cyrus-Ham until Kylie’s mother got off work.

Kylie was surprised that applying to college was “not simple, but easier than people make it sound.” She added that “if they know that, it will skyrocket people going to college from here.”

That seems to be happening. Two years ago, rootEd put Ayers-style counselors in two rural southwestern Missouri high schools. The next year, enrollment at nearby Ozarks Technical Community College, known as OTC, increased 21 percent from those two schools.

That spurred Hal Higdon, OTC’s president, to partner with rootEd and Ayers to support more counselors, in four high schools (including Kylie’s). Higdon saw that helping students also helped the bottom line. So even as enrollments plummeted at community colleges across the United States — down 9.5 percent this fall over last — OTC says it had a 14 percent rise last summer and only a 2 percent drop this fall.

Ayers and rootEd are showing how barriers to higher education can be overcome with personalized guidance. To do this, Ayers spends about $4.7 million per year supporting education efforts. RootEd provides seed funding and expertise, and will invest nearly $3 million this year to help local partners. Their particular strategy is critical: Rather than highlight the deficiencies feeding the rural education gap, they focus on fortifying local relationships — a form of social capital — and bending them toward increased college-going.

In Lawrence County, Tenn., in September, education leaders were grappling with a tough school year because of the coronavirus, along with the rural burdens of spotty cell service and fragile high-speed Internet. Yet, teachers made videos of lessons and put them on thumb drives, and school officials turned school buses into remote Internet hot spots. With little fanfare, they took on hard things. “It is kind of what we do,” said Hope Perry, the Ayers Foundation counselor at Summertown High School.

Perry can receive 20 to 30 texts a day from students with questions. Initially a reluctant college-goer herself (she wanted to enlist in the Army, but her father, a veteran, “wouldn’t sign my papers”), she understands students’ qualms.

She also understands what Susan Rhodes, who heads the foundation’s Scholars Program, calls “the dynamics of a rural community.” Perry knows the way students can get branded as “so and so’s kid,” with a reputation good or bad, “and everyone assumes that is who you will be.”

Inside the Summertown High library this fall, Perry sat with Ashlyn Walker and Cheyenne Mattox, Class of 2020. Both had intended to go to four-year campuses, but when the coronavirus hit, they decided to attend Columbia State Community College, 20 miles away, remotely.

After Perry had spent months helping them through documentation requests, Walker almost backed out — she didn’t have a computer to take the required online orientation class. Perry found her a laptop to borrow and then a scholarship to buy one. “I probably would not be in college if not for Miss Hope,” Walker said.

Personalizing counseling to an individual student’s life circumstances — going beyond standard application help — may be the powerful missing piece needed to tackle the rural education gap.

In Kali Lindsay’s case, that was certainly true. She wanted to go to college but didn’t know how to begin. When the rootEd-Ayers partnership brought the model to her high school last year, counselor Lindy Johnson became her ally. Johnson helped her apply for financial aid and find scholarships to cover nearly the full cost of college.

Now a first-year student at the University of Missouri, double-majoring in English and political science with designs on law school, Lindsay said Johnson “was a game changer.”

While she marvels at the support many of her classmates have (parents who send money for shopping, she said, “blows my mind”), she loves being at school. “It is the kind of energy I wanted in my life.”

Plus, she feels Johnson’s support. “I text her all the time, ‘Hey, what do I do?’ ” said Lindsay. Once, after sharing that she felt overwhelmed, Lindsay recalled, “she sent me a message: ‘You’re bright, you’re smart, you can do this.’ ”

This story about rural education was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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