TRIO in Rural Spaces: Outreach and Targeting, Culture and Community

TRIO programs in rural communities often face the challenge of reaching and identifying eligible participants due to the dispersed nature of the population. Outreach efforts may involve collaborating with local schools, community organizations, and churches to identify and recruit eligible students.  

In this Q&A, COE’s Vice President for Research and Director of the Pell Institute Terry Vaughan III, Ph.D., and FHI360 Research Associate Rachel Renbarger unpack the experience for rural TRIO participants of color in their latest chapter, Enhancing TRIO Programs for Rural Students of Color: An Exploratory Study, within the recently published book Race and Rurality: Considerations for Advancing Higher Education Equity

COE: What inspired you to write this book chapter on TRIO, race, and rurality? 

Rachel Renbarger: I have been a fan of TRIO ever since I started in the McNair program at the University of Oklahoma. I didn’t know that a decade later, I would have TRIO continue to be a large part of my life through my research agenda on equity in educational systems. On that journey, I met one of the book editors while learning about rural education in higher education and met my co-author Terry when publishing on graduate education. Terry and I had been working together on a rural Community of Practice session at the COE annual conference last fall, and that’s when the book chapter call came out. It seemed like a serendipitous opportunity to dive into our common interest that also speaks to our own experiences – both former TRIO students, with Terry as a Black man who spent most of his life in Chicago and me as a White woman from rural Oklahoma.  

Terry Vaughan: We were inspired to write this book chapter because we wanted to explore TRIO’s role in serving rural students of color, especially students of color from low-income backgrounds and first-generation college students. Often, rurality is solely seen through the lens of white students, and indeed, these students deserve the necessary attention to improve their college access and success. But the addition of this chapter speaks to a larger reality that the politics of rurality extends to how institutions are also serving students of color, and institutions with TRIO programs can play a crucial role in these students’ college access and success. This chapter contributes to the larger narratives about how institutions are arranged to serve students of color in rural spaces.

The Pell Institute occasional publishes papers, policy briefs and an electronic newsletter that analyses equal educational opportunities for low-income and first-generation students and students with disabilities.
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COE: Do you find variation in the provisions of services within rural TRIO programs as they support students of color? If so, were variations based on geographic location (i.e., rural California versus Appalachia or the rural South)? 

RR: We did! Across the people who responded to our survey, staff said a little over half of their programs served rural students, with a much more significant percentage of the students being Asian American, Black or African American, Native American, or multiracial compared to the general student population. These programs served their students in many categories, such as through financial support (e.g., assisting with financial aid), undergraduate and future career support (e.g., advising, giving research experiences), social support (e.g., providing peer cohorts), and wraparound support (e.g., giving referrals to other programs like housing). While TRIO staff in rural and non-rural locations offer these services to students, the staff stated that many of their services acknowledged that these look different for rural students of color. Rural institutions often needed more resources to support students, and the fact that many students lived far from the college or university meant they needed to be intentional about services, accounting for the availability of resources such as the internet and transportation.  

We did not look at differences between regions.  

TV: Our findings are based on an exploratory mixed-methods research design. We combined data from the Rural Serving Institution (RSI) data tool hosted by the Alliance for Research on Regional College (AARC) with surveys and interviews from TRIO project directors, mainly from Student Support Services (SSS) programs at rural serving institutions. We examined how TRIO programs supported rural students of color through these methods. We found that many TRIO programs serve rural students of color by providing financial aid assistance and literacy training on top of academic and career counseling. However, more support is still needed in offering or engaging in high-impact practices such as writing-intensive courses. These findings highlight that while TRIO programs within rural institutions provide valuable services to students of color, there is room for improving the opportunities offered to students, particularly regarding high-impact practices that have been shown to enhance college success.

COE: Can you share some examples of successful TRIO program efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in rural areas? 

TV: On the surface, through students’ stories and interactions with TRIO professionals, we know multiple TRIO programs successfully support diversity and inclusion at their institutions in rural areas, providing needed services to rural students of color. But what our exploratory study found, mainly through interviewing a small number of TRIO professionals serving rural students of color, is that more research is needed to pinpoint and highlight the institutional work and discourse taking place within these rural TRIO programs to understand better what may be generalizable to support all rural students of color and what is institution specific. 

Through a deeper analysis of rural TRIO programs, we will better understand how TRIO programs, one of the largest public infrastructures for supporting first-generation college students and students from low-income backgrounds in the United States, can help rural students of color. 

COE: How can TRIO professionals work to promote cross-cultural understanding in rural areas? 

RR: The first thing would be to stop and think about our assumptions about rurality. Many students of color are either from rural areas or go to school in rural places, but many societal images portray rurality as if it’s just whiteness. We must remember the diversity in rurality – not just in race but also in other essential background characteristics like socioeconomic and immigration status.  

In the same vein, rurality and racism look different across the US. Coming from Oklahoma, we have many indigenous communities thanks to legacies of racism and forced relocation. Those Native groups would not have the same experiences, strengths, and needs as the indigenous groups in Alaska. TRIO professionals should ask their students about their backgrounds in specific ways to best understand the assets they bring and where TRIO might be able to help them on their educational journey.  

COE: How can TRIO professionals work to ensure that rural communities of color have access to the same resources and opportunities as urban communities? 

RR: This is not easy. We are in extreme politicization and polarization, particularly around race and racism. Many people in education are trying to identify other ways to serve students rather than focusing on race. They might say they serve rural or low-income students as a “safe” way to recruit and serve without upsetting certain groups. I understand the need to be strategic, but I encourage us to still be race-conscious in our actions and not succumb to colorblind policies whenever possible. I know there are groups with political savvy to lobby local, state, and federal policymakers – join their groups and provide your perspective to help them as they do their job.  

TV: When it comes to race, rurality, and institutional resources, an essential thing for TRIO professionals to keep in mind is how the context of their institution, as a rural serving institution, can position students of color in a manner that allows them to have access to equally rewarding services and enriching experiences that can be found at institutions in urban spaces. Of course, there are logistical and cultural differences between rural and urban spaces, so these differences must be respected. But the need to ensure that institutional strategy and resources are aligned to support these students is crucial for the success of students of color in rural spaces. And TRIO programs can play a vital role in that strategic alignment. This is why we strongly encourage TRIO professionals to be a part of their institutional decision-making processes, when possible, to strengthen that strategic alignment.

Routledge Publishing will publish Race and Rurality: Considerations for Advancing Higher Education Equity in early 2024. Click here to pre-order the book.

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