By John Zimmerman
Far away from the amber glow of the big city night’s skies, future college scholars and families want to connect with college admissions offices. Yet, with a low-population density over a large geographic area, they are often expensive to connect with face-to-face as compared to the high-population density of metropolitan students. For the last three-and-a-half years, I have traveled across Central Illinois in admissions outreach positions. The number of students and families that attend admissions events in rural zones as compared to metropolitan areas is truly a night and day difference.
That last statement isn’t a new concept given that opportunities for interaction are greater in higher populated areas. Yet, all interactions of college access outreach are important. Having become accustomed to the Downstate numbers at fairs and visits versus the high-density of students and families at the Chicago-land and Metro St. Louis events, I have noticed a trend—fewer colleges are making the trek to smaller high schools. There are a myriad of reasons for this trend, including lunch visits and such. Also, travel budgets are tight; we have even reevaluated the historical visit effectiveness in my 32-county zone too, and I could not make it to every location either. I don’t see the tension of “bang for the buck” and rural college access outreach going away anytime soon.
The rural high school visit can be a costly expense for colleges if only a small number of students attend, if any; and with the distances involved, there are not as many options for multiple visits in a travel day. Yet, on the flip side, 50-75+ colleges will show up for a single-school event at a large metropolitan high school. On the business side of the profession, it makes perfect sense. Those are high-impact events for college outreach and it’s more enjoyable to work with the higher number of fruitful interactions found there.
The “College Checkup” idea that I submitted for the NACAC Imagine Grant extends what IACAC does at the end of the funnel outreach with the ICE college fairs. The difference is that instead of having a high number of college admissions professionals travel to a singular destination, this program is designed to spread our outreach efforts with small teams for one night in the fall.
So, what’s this one night about? The primary goal of the “College Checkup” program is to have two admissions professionals lead a student and family evening program at a rural high school to outline what high school students should be accomplishing well before the applications and essays are sent out to stay on track for admission to college. This would allow our profession to catch rural students and families early, especially in the 9th and 10th grade levels, with timely tips and to answer questions they might not ever have the chance to ask to a college professional on their own turf.
Please note that this isn’t another college fair. Admissions professionals act as generalists for this program. Some of you may have participated in these panels before and continue to do so year after year. I have also done a few in Central Illinois. However, those have been held at schools within a 10-minute drive to the nearest Best Buy. The aim of the Imagine Grant proposal was to spread college access programming to as many points as possible, especially to those high schools that do not have college rooms or specific college counselors.
I believe that the college-side can give one night to the rural population of Illinois, as we have with other populations. We will also need to have partners on the high school side for hosting these evening programs. A rural outreach program will take some effort to coordinate and perhaps in a year or two, it would take shape in a wider organizational form.
This past April, Jessica Talbert of Rockford College and I led the pilot “College Checkup” at Glenwood High School in Chatham, Illinois. By giving part of that one night, we covered the topics of high school course selection, major/program exploration, college visits, open houses and much more. I want to thank Jessica for joining me in the conversation and to give a big shout-out to Nada Broderick, College Counselor at Glenwood High School for hosting this pilot program.
As I am leaving to enroll in Seminary this summer, I am grateful that some of my Downstate admissions friends are working on this intentional rural outreach idea in Southern Illinois this fall. I am still awed for being selected as a NACAC Imagine Grant recipient and hope that the visibility afforded to this project by being approved will help spread the word of the need for rural college outreach. This project will take some legwork to coordinate on a large scale; yet it all starts with just one night.
John Zimmerman is a 2012 NACAC Imagine Grant Recipient and worked most recently as an Admissions Counselor at Western Illinois University (2009-2012). He is also the Founding President (2010-2012) of the fraternal-professional organization, Downstate Illinois Admissions Counselors.