The number of rural students expected to enroll in college in the near future has plummeted due to COVID-19. A major indicator of this trend is that the number of rural students completing federal application forms for financial aid has dropped by 16 percent compared to last year. This is higher than the 14.2 percent drop amongst urban students.

In some rural states, the drop was even bigger. For example, West Virginia experienced a 26.1 percent decrease, while Louisiana fell by 26.4 percent.

Statistics indicate that this trend is indeed underway, with a drop in first-time enrollment recorded in many universities in rural areas. In the recent fall semester, first-time undergraduate enrollment fell by nearly 4 and 8 percent at the University of Idaho and Idaho State University, respectively. Idaho already has the lowest proportion of high school graduates who pursue college education in the country, tied with Alaska at 44 percent.

Communities Reeling From Recession

While a survey from the Rural Youth Futures project found that the biggest single barrier to college for these rural students is the price, other factors also affect access to higher education. This includes recently lowered access to information about college due to the pandemic, normally gained by students in activities such as class assemblies and meetings with college counselors and recruiters to encourage completing financial aid forms.

The pandemic has also affected average household earnings in rural areas, which are already 20 percent lower than incomes elsewhere. This is due to businesses closing down and a loss of jobs in rural communities already struggling from declines in the agriculture industry.

Resistance to Online Classes

The Hechinger Report, a news outlet dedicated to inequality and innovation in education, stated that many students in rural areas are also skeptical of having to pay for college, only for it to remain online.

Aside from the perception that remote will not offer the same experience, many rural communities struggle to secure stable internet connections. On top of that, in areas where cable isn’t available, families may be forced to choose significantly more expensive satellite service.

COVID’s Effect on Progress

Between 2011 and 2016, the proportion of rural students going to college rose from 51 percent to 61 percent and has stalled since then.

Researchers from a number of universities in Maine, Oregon, Georgia, and Alaska have sought to find concrete answers behind how COVID-19 has affected rural students’ college prospects by conducting a survey. They found that rural students are more likely to pursue college if they participated in extracurricular activities, got good grades, and enjoyed their high school education overall.

Jessica Leahy, professor at the University of Maine and one of the researchers, explained that not having these extracurricular activities and staying at home can affect the way students perceive their education. As a result, their grades may be lower because they do not feel like they are in the same learning environment that they are used to with in-person instruction. This ends up playing a part in their decision to pursue higher education, especially if the effects of the pandemic persist in the next academic year.