By Jon Reidel and Rick Dalton

As an unprecedented number of colleges and universities close their doors forever while others struggle to survive, a deep pool of prospective students—and the key to accessing them—is hiding in plain sight.

Students from rural America attend college at lower rates (59%) than their urban (62%) and suburban (67%) counterparts and comprise only 29% of all students ages 18-24 enrolled in higher education, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Colleges in New England and upstate New York face a double dilemma: They’re in locations with downward demographic trends and low college attendance rates.

This past fall, the majority of New England public colleges and universities saw enrollment declines, according to data collected by the New England Board of Higher Education. Overall, 17% of the small colleges in New England have closed permanently in the past five years with an additional 25% likely to shut their doors by 2025, according to educational consultant Michael Horn, co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

One of the two most rural states in the country is Vermont, where only 60% of high school students attend college—a rate that ranks last in New England and 42nd nationally. These numbers contributed to the closures of three higher ed institutions, all announced within the last few months: Green Mountain College, Southern Vermont College and the College of St. Joseph.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and other leaders in education, business and government have recognized that low numbers of college-educated citizens will have a negative impact on the state’s economy. Unless Vermont produces more skilled and educated citizens, as measured by the reliable indicator of college degrees, 132,000 jobs will go unfilled over the next decade, and that’s why they launched Advance Vermont to boost the share of Vermonters who earn two-year or four-year degrees or other credentials of value by 15% to 70% by 2025.

David Reese, president of Southern Vermont College, saw the demographics as a crisis when he told Inside Higher Ed (IHE) last fall, “New England is in a bad way, especially the rural parts.” Vermont’s high school population, which typically supplies about one-third of Southern Vermont’s students, is “plummeting—and we haven’t even hit the 2026 ‘baby bust’ from the recession,” IHE added.

Hiding in plain sight: an obvious answer to the higher education crisis

Despite this ominous trend, there are organizations with proven track records of helping colleges reach qualified students and helping schools and communities beat the odds. A recent University of Vermont study found that 88% of students assigned to a college counselor through the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) enrolled in college. Yet research also shows that there’s a layer of students who were first-gen (the first in their families to attend college) and from low-income households who fail to attend college simply because no one’s helping them figure out how to do so.

CFES Brilliant Pathways, located in rural Essex, N.Y. (two miles west of Vermont on Lake Champlain), has a 90% success rate getting students to pursue college. “Nonprofits like CFES have track records that few, if any, can match, in moving underserved students from rural and urban areas to and through college,” said Harvard Business School professor Joe Fuller.

Erick DuShane, a student who participated in the CFES Brilliant Pathway program for five years at his K-12 rural school in New York and is now a junior at the University of Rochester, says his postsecondary aspirations were raised after visiting campuses and realizing he was college material.

Replicating a successful model: school-college partnerships

One way to attract students from rural areas to college would be to replicate existing programs that have been successful in other places. CFES set up a partnership between the University of Vermont and Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx in 2001 that has brought 440 New York City students to UVM over the past 18 years.

The innovative collaboration helped diversify UVM’s undergraduate population and benefited the university’s overall recruitment strategy. At the same time, the partnership changed the life trajectories of students like Manny Tejada, a first-gen college student who interned in UVM admissions as an undergrad and today serves as an associate director there.

“I’m now in a position to give back by helping students like myself get into college,” says Tejada, whose fiancé Enmy Soler also went to UVM from a CFES school in the Bronx and recently earned her master’s degree in education while working in the UVM Women’s Center.

“CFES has played a major role in diversifying our undergraduate population and continues to have an impact nationwide in helping underserved students get into college,” says UVM President Thomas Sullivan.

UVM recently approached CFES about starting a similar partnership at Burlington High School, in its own backyard. The local partnership, spurred by Burlington High’s interim director of guidance, Tim Wile, would provide college counseling, mentoring, tutoring and financial literacy to Burlington students—whether they intend to enroll at UVM or not.

“Our state needs more citizens prepared to fill thousands of anticipated job openings in Vermont over the next decade that require two- or four-year degrees or a credential of value,” said Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman at the 2018 CFES National Conference in Burlington. “Getting more kids college- and career-ready is good for our economy, our colleges and certainly our residents.”

The Burlington partnership and others like it will benefit rural institutions like Castleton University and Northern Vermont University, as well as colleges like Champlain and Saint Michael’s that are located in small cities surrounded by rural areas. The results could be transformative. If just six more students from each of Vermont’s 75 high schools chose to attend college, the Green Mountain State would move from the bottom 10 states for college attendance rates to among the top 25. In raw numbers, that’s 450 more students per year who would go to college, not insignificant given that only 5,000 high school seniors graduate each year in Vermont.

CFES Brilliant Pathways numbers reveal the impact first-gen students could have on college enrollments. CFES has helped 100,000 students across the country attend college, with a 75% “on-time” completion rate.

CFES’s current strategic plan calls for the nonprofit to take on another cohort of 100,000 students over the next eight years. We estimate that 25,000 of those young people will be from New England and New York and that these students would not pursue higher education without mentoring and the development of college pathway knowledge and essential skills. This is a recipe not just for lifting kids out of poverty, but for keeping colleges open and stimulating the economy across our region.

Jon Reidel is director of advancement and communications at CFES Brilliant Pathways. Rick Dalton is president and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways.

This article was originally posted by the New England Board of Higher Education on April 23, 2019.