Expanding Postsecondary and Career Readiness in Rural Areas


January 29, 2015


On Monday, I spent the afternoon on Eastern Oregon University’s campus in La Grande. I was there with a colleague to present at a board meeting of Eastern Promise, an innovative program designed to increase the college-going culture of schools in Eastern Oregon and increase access for high school students to college-credit courses.

Driving east from Portland, I was struck by the immensity of Oregon and the Northwest. Because many of our school districts are rural, teachers might not have nearby colleagues working in their content area. High school students may not have access to college courses because the nearest institution is hours away. Rural districts wanting to offer college-level courses in the high school often have trouble attracting teachers qualified to teach at that level. And, rural students have been found to have lower college enrollment rates than their urban and suburban counterparts.

In the Northwest, Alaska has 62 percent of its schools classified as rural, Idaho 46 percent, and Montana 75 percent—all well above the 33 percent national average. Oregon and Washington have 29 and 26 percent rural schools, respectively.

Rural schools face different types of challenges in preparing students for successful postsecondary education and career experiences than we often hear about in our typically urban-centered research and policy discussions. Most of education research takes place in an urban setting, and we often don’t know if what works in that context will translate.

One strategy to increase college success is to provide options for high school students to earn college credit. The idea is that these classes can help introduce students to the rigors of college work in high school and demonstrate to students that college is a possibility.

Oregon offers a number of options for high school students to earn college credit: Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, dual-credit classes (classes taught at the high school that offer both high school and college credit), dual-enrollment or Expanded Options classes (the high school student enrolls in a regular college class on the college campus), and fifth-year programs (college-credit-bearing courses offered to students at their local high schools following completion of high school diploma requirements).

Oregon also now also offers a new form of dual credit courses: the Eastern Promise credit-by-proficiency courses, developed by the Eastern Promise program to overcome the shortage of teachers in Eastern Oregon schools who meet the traditional qualifications for teaching a dual-credit course (typically a master’s in their subject area). Teachers can now offer college-credit courses in the high school if they have a master’s in another subject (e.g., education) and participate in professional learning communities led by college faculty that ensure the rigor of the high school course. This is an innovative solution to a problem that is endemic in rural schools and provides new opportunities for rural high school students to engage in rigorous coursework and earn college credit.

Because this method of expanding college-credit courses in high school holds such potential, the Oregon Department of Education awarded grants to five more groups in regions across the state to replicate the Eastern Promise program. Each site is adapting the original program components to fit the needs of its region. The variety of options and flexibility Oregon offers students in terms of college-level coursework in high school is exciting and allows for regional adaptations that may better meet the needs of the students in both rural and urban settings.

In what ways can we increase postsecondary education and career readiness among rural populations? This can be a challenge, because rural students often leave their families and communities to go to college or start a career in a chosen industry, and in many communities, efforts to increase postsecondary education and career readiness may be viewed as a negative effort that will result in their young people moving away.

How can we be more flexible and adapt policies, programs, and systems often developed and tested in urban districts to fit the context of our rural districts?

How can the education research community better include rural students when conducting rigorous studies?

See our article on the Eastern Promise program that ran earlier this week.