The following article was originally published by Vermont Business Magazine on April 22, 2021.

It’s well known that low-income urban students who want to attend college face significant hurdles. But rural students go to college and remain there at even lower rates than their urban counterparts.

A new initiative, the North Country Brilliant Pathways Program, aims to address this underrecognized gap for students at 20 elementary, middle and high schools in rural Vermont and northeastern New York by providing them with a multi-faceted, comprehensive college readiness program.

The new program was announced at an April 22 press conference at the Essex, N.Y. headquarters of CFES Brilliant Pathways, the college readiness non-profit that developed the program.

The program, with an estimated total value of $1.5 million,  is free of cost, but each school needs to apply to be included. The application and program details can be found on the CFES website

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about the opportunity CFES Brilliant Pathways is creating for the 20 schools in the North Country of New York and Vermont,” said former New York Governor George Pataki, who spoke at the press conference and serves on the organization’s advisory board. “This isn’t about having just another program; it’s about changing lives and showing the pathway to opportunity and how a better career and education can be achieved in every community in every town and every village throughout the North Country. I’m proud to be a small part of this success that will help these students and families.”

“Economic, cultural and demographic issues are combining to rob young people in rural communities of the future they deserve,” said Rick Dalton, president of CFES Brilliant Pathways. “This new initiative is designed to level the playing field for a group of schools in New York and Vermont and serve as a model that could be adopted by schools nationwide,” he said.

The new program will offer a variety of components to the 20 participating schools. They include the following (see Program Profile(link is external) for more details):

  • A dedicated professional program director for each school who will make in-person and virtual visits throughout the year and guide the development of college and career plans.
  • Myriad professional development and enrichment opportunities for educators, students and families, such as monthly college- and career-readiness advisor trainings certified by the University of Vermont.
  • A variety of digital resources, including partnerships and networking opportunities with 200 colleges/universities and 230 businesses and corporations.
  • Opportunities for networking, collaboration, and recognition, including becoming a nationally recognized School of Distinction.
  • A partnership with an urban school to promote cultural exchange and connection and prepare students to navigate a diverse world.

The program is a distillation of strategies CFES Brilliant Pathways has developed over its history. These strategies are laid out in detail in a new book written by Dalton, Rural Pathways to College and Career (Routledge, April 2021).

“We believe that the book can help rural schools transform themselves and lift up their communities, and that’s why we decided to launch North Country Brilliant Pathways,” said Dalton. “Sharing good ideas isn’t enough. We need to turn great ideas into action and change destinies. CFES is committed to raise $1.5 million to work with 20 schools in Northern New York and across the state of Vermont.”

While rural students attend college at only slightly lower rates than urban students (59% vs 61%), retention rates are much lower. Just 29% of rural Americans aged 18-24 are enrolled in colleges and universities, compared to 42% of all Americans in that age range.  The pandemic has worsened the problem. FAFSA completions, a sign of intent to go to college, dropped10% nationally this year and 15% in rural areas.

Postsecondary college enrollment in Vermont is below the national average of 68.4% percent with only 60.2% of Vermont high school graduates choosing to attend a two- or four-year postsecondary institution, according to the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. Across the lake in rural northeastern New York, fewer than 50% of students choose to attend college.

“The remarkable effects of our relationship with CFES has created an undeniable school culture that has helped break both the barriers of socioeconomic status, broadened our horizons and brought our students to previously unknown ‘brilliant pathways,’” said Shari Brannock, superintendent of the Crown Point School, who also spoke at the press conference. Crown Point School has been a CFES school for 20 years.

Fully two-thirds of all jobs and 80 percent of all jobs that pay a median of $65,000 or more require postsecondary education, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

CFES Brilliant Pathways is an international nonprofit that has helped over 100,000 urban and rural students become college and career ready through three Core Practices and programs that build Essential Skills and college and career knowledge. Relying on research-driven methods and best practices, CFES has sent more than 90 percent of its students to college since 1991, and currently serves 25,000 students in 30 states and Ireland.