Their success could be critical for Georgia's overall economy. The state of small-town and rural Georgia was a big concern for many state lawmakers during the recent legislative session. Several rural hospitals have closed in recent years, and access to high-speed internet has often been lacking. Lawmakers pumped more than $40 million into new or expanded programs aimed specifically at helping the economy of small-town Georgia.
“It’s incumbent on us to recruit students from that area,” said Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions, citing data he’s seen that shows rural students are more likely to return to their communities upon graduation.
Nationally, college enrollment rates for rural students is slightly below the rates for recent high school graduates from suburban and urban school districts, according to an annual report by the non-profit National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said state governments need to invest more money in higher education to help rural students pursue a college education, particularly as the percentage of good-paying jobs in agriculture and manufacturing declines.
“These institutions are the portal to the middle class for rural students,” said Harnisch, a Wisconsin native who attended rural schools.
Georgia Tech, Emory and UGA are trying different ways to recruit rural students. Georgia Tech started a program last year that offers a guaranteed spot to any high school student who graduates first or second in their class. UGA in January announced the ALL Georgia Program, a five-year, $300,000 privately-funded initiative to offer additional academic and other support to rural students. Emory offers scholarships to rural students to attend Oxford College, its smaller, two-year college whose students finish at the main campus, and is expanding outreach efforts.
Enrollment officials have several theories for why there aren’t more rural students at some colleges. Some students and families believe they cannot afford the pricier tuition. For example, Emory’s tuition, housing and fees for the upcoming school year will be nearly $70,000. Many rural high schools don’t have enough guidance counselors who help students make decisions, or the schools don’t offer as many Advanced Placement or other courses that colleges like to see on high school student transcripts, admissions officers said in interviews.
Another factor: some students just don’t think they’ll get accepted.
“They just believe that their best students can’t get in a Georgia Tech or Emory and even if they do, they can’t afford it,” said Chris Pace, Emory’s senior associate dean of admissions.
Georgia Tech decided to offer all Georgia high school valedictorians and salutatorians entrance, in large part, because they weren’t getting student applications from some rural counties. Georgia Tech hadn’t received an application from a student from some Georgia counties in as many as five years, Clark said.
Thrasher said she’s the only person in her class of about 235 students attending Tech this fall. Georgia Tech was her first choice, but she wasn’t entirely sure she’d get accepted. She didn’t know anyone from that North Georgia county who attended Tech. One-tenth of one percent of UGA’s students hail from Gilmer.
She took six AP courses at Gilmer High and got a near perfect 33 on the ACT college entrance exam. Thrasher earned the golden ticket to Tech because she was the high school salutatorian with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Thrasher’s success has classmates dreaming loftier about college. Some friends who were skeptical about their chances of landing at a school like Georgia Tech have asked her advice about enrolling.
Thrasher believes top universities need more rural students.
“There are a lot of people with a lot of talent in these areas,” she said.
Pace said he spends several days each year touring South Georgia attempting to convince students they have a chance. Recruiters’ work includes more interaction with high school counselors, inviting students for visits and looking more closely at student applications to see if rural students are taking more difficult classes.
The difficulty some students have paying the tuition at some of these schools has university leaders talking to alumni and donors more often about the importance of financial support to low-income students, said Clark. Tech's average student loan debt is about $30,000, he said. The average debt for Georgia graduates is about $28,000, according to some research.
This year, Tech received applications from about 115 of Georgia’s 159 counties, Clark said. Five years from now, Tech hopes to receive an application from a student in each county. Eventually, they hope to have a student enrolled at Tech from each Georgia county.
“We’re hoping it translates across the state,” he said.
It did for at least one student.
Thrasher, who said she feels like she’s been sheltered in Gilmer, said the busy Midtown Atlanta streets around Georgia Tech were intimidating at first. Georgia Tech had about as many students last fall, 29,369, as the entire population of Gilmer County.
But now, she said, “I can’t wait to get immersed in it.”
Emory University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia have far more students from metro Atlanta than rural Georgia. Here’s a breakdown from the 2017 academic year, based on Georgia Tech’s definition of rural counties. About 18 percent of all Georgia students attend rural schools.
At Emory, 79.3 percent of Georgia students came from metro Atlanta and 8.1 percent from rural schools.
At Georgia Tech, 75.7 percent came from Metro Atlanta and 4.8 percent from rural schools.
At the University of Georgia, 60.7 percent came from Metro Atlanta and 12.2 percent from rural schools.
Sources: Emory University, Georgia Tech office of media relations, University of Georgia Office of Institutional Research.