Expanding College Access: A Multi-Layered Process

Over the last three years, I have had the privilege of leading Texas A&M AgriLife’s, Rural Student Success Initiative (RSSI). Being that RSSI is a relatively new project, people often ask me to explain it in a nutshell.  I describe RSSI as an initiative aimed to leverage AgriLife’s 250 county-based platform and longstanding presence in the community to broaden college access opportunities for students from remote regions of the state.

One question that I do not often get and which I was just most recently asked was, “What’s your connection to rural students?” I recently delivered a keynote presentation to a conference audience of faculty, policymakers, researchers, and students.  I shared with them that what attracted me to this position was that I saw RSSI as an opportunity to be part of a project that could transform people’s lives through education.  I never saw this position as just a “rural” college access initiative, but rather as a project with the potential to transform not only students’ lives in the short term, but also of future generations. The fact that I would be doing this work for rural communities was a plus for me, as I have always appreciated the authenticity of people, and the tranquility and simple life that can be experienced in small, isolated rural regions.

RSSI builds college awareness and extends technical assistance to rural school districts that are under resourced with limited access to college information due to their geographic location. We recognize that for students to attain a college education requires both academic preparation and non-academic student support services.  RSSI focuses on the latter.  Research shows that even the most academically prepared, yet socioeconomically disadvantaged students, still do not seek a higher education and do not complete degrees/credentials at the same rate as that of their more affluent peers. Lack of social and cultural capital is a major driver of the disparity in postsecondary outcomes.

While there are several conceptual research models in higher education that help frame students’ postsecondary choices, Perna’s (2006) Model of Student College Choice is one that most closely aligns with the premise of RSSI. A student’s decision to go to college is not a simple cost and benefit analysis, but rather a decision influenced by several layers of influencers, including the student’s habitus, family, school, and community context, and social, economic and policy context (Perna, 2006). It is these multiple layers that the RSSI approach attempts to address in the long-term through its stakeholder network, college access framework, local community-based programming, and technical assistance to school districts.  We recognize that this effort is monumental and a long-term endeavor. For RSSI to make a dent in each of these layers will require extensive, deep collaboration with like-minded organizations who have a sincere desire and long-term commitment to expanding educational opportunities for underserved, rural communities.

As I reflect on RSSI’s inaugural project launch three years ago when we were one of only two rural-focused initiatives, I am energized by the growth in organizations now starting to divert more of their resources to rural regions.  At the same time, my hope is that we continue to make a concerted effort to align our respective efforts and leverage all our resources for improving the social and economic well-being of rural communities for the long run.

Perna, L. (2006). Studying college access and choice: A proposed conceptual model. Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. XXI, 99–157.

Collegiate Edu-Nation
Maria Luna-Torres, Ph.D. Project Director, Rural Student Success Initiative (RSSI) -Texas A&M AgriLife Extension