Strengthening Rural Communities and Preparing Students for Success

By: Sen. Susan M. Collins

Maine is the most rural state in the country.  Two out of three Maine schools are in rural communities, and more than half of Maine students attend those schools.  While nearly 90 percent of the students in our State graduate from high school, only 62 percent enroll in higher education right away.  According to a recent report by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, only 30 percent of Maine students go on to earn a two-year or four-year degree.

 

This disparity between high school and higher education graduation rates reflects trends observed nationwide.  Across the country, rural students tend to graduate from high school at higher rates than their peers in urban districts, and at about the same rate as their peers in suburban schools. But, only 59 percent of rural graduates enroll in college upon graduation, which is a lower percentage than their counterparts in urban and suburban areas.

 

I have introduced the Success for Rural Students and Communities Act to help rural students achieve their higher education goals.  This bipartisan legislation is co-authored by Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

 

The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act aims to improve the outcomes for rural students who are pursuing higher education and skills-based credentials that will prepare them to meet the workforce needs of their home communities.  It would also help spur innovation and investment in strategies that improve college access and success for rural students.

 

This legislation would create a demonstration program to encourage rural community stakeholders to implement strategies to help their students go to college or other post-secondary education, complete their education, and enter the workforce with the knowledge and skills to succeed.  These partnerships would draw on the talents of local school districts, institutions of higher education, regional economic development entities, rural community organizations, and the private sector. 

 

For example, many of these students are the first in their families to attend college, so they may have a more difficult time finding information about financial aid or selecting an educational program that meets their needs. The bill calls for partnerships to expose students and their families to college campuses, courses, internships, and career pathways to rewarding jobs at home. With the right supports in place, more rural students can complete their post-secondary education. These partnerships could also assist rural nontraditional students.

 

To meet the demands of today’s workforce, many employees will need a credential beyond a high school diploma – perhaps a college degree, a skilled trade credential, or a professional certificate. The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act encourages schools and employers to forge partnerships that will put students on pathways into the high-demand jobs available where they live.

 

These partnership will strengthen rural communities by helping them keep their young people who have the education and the skills that those communities need to be vibrant and successful.

 

The bill highlights a number of strategies that could be developed and tested, including work-based learning opportunities such as apprenticeships and internships.  I have toured apprenticeship programs in Maine, including one that helps to train people for jobs in forestry, and have seen first-hand how successful those apprenticeship programs are.

 

 

When rural students enroll in college, they often face barriers that prevent them from graduating.  That’s why I have promoted student success programs.  I’ve seen an effective one at the Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor where students are helped with whatever is preventing them from completing their studies, from mentoring and tutoring to financial assistance to meet childcare needs.

 

One great example of the type of program that fulfills the goals of this legislation is the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative. Launched with a generous donation from local philanthropic partners, Aroostook Aspirations provides scholarships to high school students in Aroostook County who are seeking post-secondary education. The Initiative collaborates with local colleges and universities and works with area businesses to offer seminars, internships, and mentorships. The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act would support dynamic programs like this one.

 

My legislation has been endorsed by the American Association of Community Colleges and the 1,051 institutions—including the Maine Community College System—it represents; The School Superintendents Association; and the National Rural Education Association, among others.  It would make a meaningful investment in the educational aspirations of students and their families. By helping students succeed in reaching their education and career goals, we can also would strengthen the economy of rural communities here in Maine and throughout America.