High poverty, lack of exposure to colleges in their communities, and limited access to broadband and advanced coursework are among the barriers students in rural communities must overcome on their way to college.

On May 4, Dreama Gentry, Executive Director and Sara White, Director of Programs with Partners for Education at Berea College, joined FCAN’s Kathy McDonald, Assistant Director for Network Partnerships, to share what they have learned supporting college access and success among Appalachian students in Kentucky. As organizers of the Rural College Access & Success Summit, they provided an overview of what is proving effective in rural communities across the US.

Rural Students in the U.S. in Florida

During the webinar, Gentry shared that more than one in four of America’s public schools are rural, resulting in nearly 9 million attending rural schools. Additionally, almost half of rural students come from low-income families, and about 25% of rural students are students of color.

While Florida has a lower proportion of rural schools (13.1%) and students who live in rural communities (5.5%) compared to the national average (28.5% and 15.4%, respectively), the overall number of rural students in the Sunshine State (over 154,000) far exceeds the average for the rest of the states (almost 96,000). And according to the rural diversity index in the Why Rural Matters 2018-19 report, Florida’s rural student population is also more diverse (47.2%) than the national average (31.9%).

A greater proportion of rural students in Florida (19.3%) live in poverty compared to nationally (15.4%). Additionally, the estimated graduation rate in rural districts in Florida (80.9%) is lower than three national rate (88.7%).

Successful Strategies from Partners for Education 

The Partners for Education model addresses three key barriers:

  • Programming gaps – students have limited access to high quality programs to meet their diverse needs from cradle to career
  • Capacity constraints – Schools and communities lack access to the tools, techniques, and supports needed to tackle the challenges students and families face
  • Systems misalignment – sectors, systems and funding are not aligned to meet the needs of our communities

In shaping their approach, Gentry shared, “In rural contexts, we don’t have the luxury of doing one thing – we have to do all things.”  Their work evolved to implement programs, build local capacity, and align systems. They have also identified four successful strategies that help rural students prepare for life in college:

  • Lift educational aspirations
  • Build academic skills
  • Connect college and career
  • Engage families as partners

Impact on Rural Student Success

Partners for Education started with one school in 1999 and currently serves more than 15,000 schools in 41 southeastern Kentucky counties. The organization has leveraged regional and national programs to strengthen their local partners and bolster the capacities of their school districts.

In Leslie County, for instance, the Partners for Education model resulted in significant gains in 8th grade reading proficiency (from 47% to 74%) and high school graduation rate (from 68% to 97%).

Overall, Gentry and White estimate Partners for Education has had a positive economic impact of $65 million in Central Appalachia.

Show Notes

To learn more about supporting rural students — or to view the webinar and download the presentation — take advantage of these resources:


If you would like information on attending future Rural College Access and Success Summits, email ruralsummit@berea.edu to be added to their email list.

Be sure to visit our Past Webinars page for access to recordings and downloadable material from FCAN’s previous presentations.

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