“Who influences students to go to college or not to go to college?” Jennifer Blazek, the Director of the Emerging Leaders Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asked. In the coming months, the work she’ll be doing with the new Small Town and Rural Students (STARS) Network will seek to answer and address that question.
Blazek will lead the programming and initiative efforts for STARS at UW-Madison. The network aims to “widen pathways to higher education for rural and small-town students,” according to its website.
UW-Madison was invited to participate in the program, which consists of four public schools — UW-Madison, University of Maryland, University of Iowa and Ohio State University — and 11 private schools, such as Brown University, the University of Southern California and the University of Chicago. For UW-Madison, the response to the invite was a “yes, definitely,” Blazek explained.
“This is a population that the university is really interested in reaching more,” Blazek said.
Yet, UW-Madison’s response will differ from what other institutions will be working on, Blazek noted.
“We don’t necessarily want to only focus on increasing access to UW-Madison,” she said. “Of course, if we get rural students, awesome, right? But how do we look across all of the college landscape?”
That means that, rather than focusing on fly-ins or admissions programming, UW-Madison is additionally weighing ideas of pre-college programs or alumni visits. These will help prospective students “get that same experience that undergrads enjoy,” Blazek explained.
According to a Future Wisconsin Project report, 97% of Wisconsin’s land area is considered rural, with 30% of the state’s population living in that space. In addition, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reports “about 44 % of the state's 860,000 PK-12 public school students attend schools in rural communities.”
Dayne Tallier, a UW-Madison senior, went to Gilman High School in Gilman, Wisconsin, which enrolled 147 students as of the 2021-2022 school year. The conservation biology major described himself as “pretty resourceful” but said support was “not at all” available to students.
Tallier described an incident where his high school counselor didn’t know about Bucky’s Tuition Promise, a program which “really influenced [his] decision to come here.” Teaching staff at Tallier’s high school “didn’t know of these resources” for schools other than more local ones like University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire or Chippewa Valley Technical College, Tallier explained.
College preparation, such as tutors for the ACT, and information about what to do “after high school” other than technical college were areas Tallier thought would’ve assisted students.
Jacob Roden, a sophomore agriculture business management student from Cedarburg, Wisconsin and a member of Alpha Gamma Rho, a food and agriculture fraternity at UW-Madison, said Madison having green space helped him transition to an “urban environment” different from home. Moving from a smaller community — both in education and schooling — to a more populous, urban setting “can be intimidating,” Roden said, but he also emphasized how adapting to that challenge helped him become “a more well-rounded person.”
Roden hopes to see UW-Madison, especially within the College of Agricultural and Life Science, further help rural students “attend and transition to [the university]” to promote the Wisconsin Idea.
Blazek identified a number of challenges for rural students. Sometimes students “only know what’s in their neighborhood,” Blazek noted, meaning students may limit themselves to local technical colleges or may be intimidated by the transition from a rural area to a “town like Madison.”
“That can be really off-putting and very scary for folks,” Blazek said.
Access — a steady internet connection or the time and ability to travel — can be another obstacle for rural students, Blazek said. Financial access is also a barrier, and part of the reason Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which pays tuition and segregated fees for students with a household adjusted gross income of $65,000 or less, “has been so successful.”
“A lot of farm students really benefit from that because it helps offset [expenses] because farms, unfortunately, are very capital rich, but cash poor,” Blazek explained.
Right now, developing the program’s plan is Blazek’s main focus. Part of that plan includes continuous communication with the other institutions involved in STARS to find replicable solutions between schools, Blazek said.
One idea Blazek mentioned was “utilizing current students or alumni,” who she’s currently seeking, to reach prospective students who may not see themselves at a four-year university. This would be part of a larger conversation with students and community members — school counselors, teachers, family members — who “help [students] make that decision for college.”
“We really want to be authentic and intentional, and build lasting trust-based relationships. We don’t wanna just go like, ‘we have solutions for you’ — how can we work together with communities?” Blazek said.
Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.