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Adolfo Castro had never set foot on a college campus until he was 18. No one in his family had pursued a degree, and growing up in San Augustine, Texas, a small town near the Louisiana border, he didn’t have the benefit of a local community college or university to inspire an early interest in higher education.

But ­during his senior year, he and 11 classmates toured Stephen F. Austin State University, 30 minutes away in Nacogdoches, Texas, and viewed its culinary program’s kitchens. It was as if a light switched on. “I could picture myself there, cooking and studying,” Castro said. A year later, he is enrolled at Tyler Junior College, with plans to transfer to Stephen F. Austin during his junior year to finish a culinary arts degree. One day, he hopes to own his own café.

Castro’s bus tour was made possible by an innovative pilot program that is impacting students in Texas’ most isolated or impoverished rural counties. Launched in 2018, the Rural Student Success Initiative (RSSI) is currently working with 17 rural school districts to build a college-going culture in their communities as the necessary first step toward its primary goal of increasing the number of rural students who successfully complete a college certificate or degree program.  

The program is built around the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s unique network of county agents, who are part of The Texas A&M University System. County agents, particularly those serving in rural counties, are credible local leaders. Leveraging their community knowledge, these county extension agents help unite schools, community leaders and the RSSI program to ensure that resources reach rural school district leaders, teachers, guidance counselors, students and parents.

“This very much reflects the mission of AgriLife Extension,” said Dr. Maria Luna-Torres ’96, RSSI’s project director. “AgriLife has a renewed commitment to improve the lives of every Texan.”

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp ’72 shares this thinking. “We continue to see new and innovative ways to use AgriLife Extension’s one-of-a-kind statewide network to address critical needs for Texas’ rural populations,” Sharp said. “Expanding access and resources for our state’s rural students and parents will encourage and motivate continued education after high school.”

Built around Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s network of county agents, the Rural Student Success Initiative is striving to build a college-going culture in rural communities.

The program—which has much broader goals than recruiting students to Texas A&M—is still in its demonstration phase, helped along by major contributions from the Greater Texas Foundation, The Meadows Foundation, the Trellis Foundation and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation. If the program achieves the desired results, RSSI will explore long-term funding strategies to expand its reach into additional rural communities.

“I feel like we’re making a difference; college applications have already increased,” said Sandy Jenkins, an AgriLife extension agent in San Augustine County. But her goals are even bigger. “We have generational poverty here. I want to show families that they can change that.”

The Seed of the Idea

Educators and civic leaders have long been concerned that rural students—up to 900,000 statewide—aren’t getting the same opportunities for postsecondary education as youth in more densely populated areas. In Texas, which has the largest population of rural students in the country, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has developed a 60x30 strategic plan, a goal to ensure that 60% of Texans ages 25 to 34 have degrees or certificates by 2030. Statistics show that although rural students graduate high school at a higher rate than the state average, they are less likely than their peers to enroll in college. Nationally, approximately 42% of people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in a college or university, but within rural communities, the participation rate is 29%. 

“This program seeks to level the playing field and equip rural schools, communities and families with tools, programs, resources and support for success,” said Dr. Susan Ballabina, deputy vice chancellor for agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M and an early proponent of the program. “It is an important initiative with the potential to transform communities.”

Despite the deep involvement of The Texas A&M University System, RSSI is not focused on getting students to Aggieland but on boosting postsecondary access and success more broadly. Whether for a technical certificate or associate degree from a community college, or a baccalaureate degree from a Texas flagship or regional university, RSSI’s goal is to help students and parents make informed decisions about pursuing a college certificate or degree program that best matches their interests and personal aspirations.

A significant amount of funding from a group of sophisticated philanthropies has backed RSSI thus far, including a $3.2 million grant from the Greater Texas Foundation. “As a foundation focused on improving postsecondary outcomes for Texas students, we are proud to invest in the innovative Rural Student Success Initiative to help make college a reality for more of our state’s rural students,” said Sue McMillin, president and CEO of the foundation.

Another $500,000 came from the T.L.L. Temple Foundation. “Rural communities are diverse and resilient. Through RSSI, we have an opportunity to use a proven rural platform to solve a new challenge,” said Dr. Wynn Rosser ’90, the foundation’s president and CEO. “If we can get this right, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s statewide reach has the potential to significantly increase the number of rural students who earn a high-value postsecondary degree or credential. Building on our rural past may be part of the solution for a better future for Texas students and communities.”

Kristin Boyer, executive director of the Trellis Foundation, which provided a $100,000 grant, is also enthusiastic. “It’s an incredibly powerful message for students to see their ISDs, extension offices and educational institutions all investing in their success.”

The Rural Student Success Initiative currently partners with 17 counties across the state to increase the number of rural students who complete a college certificate or degree program.

In 2018, AgriLife Extension hired Luna-Torres to implement the program. The first year focused on strengthening school districts’ subject matter expertise and knowledge base in partnership with College Forward and the National College Attainment Network, two prominent student success nonprofits.

In year two, RSSI expanded school districts’ network of resources and regional partners. For instance, the program facilitated a grant from the Texas Workforce Commission to Huntington ISD for equipment to help train students in the medical field. Luna-Torres and her staff also increased efforts to build postsecondary know-how among students and families and developed a regional strategy using a network of leadership coaches—people from the region who work part-time as guides for schools.  

At the center of RSSI’s efforts are the extension agents, who are critical to making community connections. At first, Luna-Torres faced a bit of resistance, as some extension agents and educators viewed RSSI as one more thing to fit into their already heavy workload.

Sandi Russell, the counselor at San Augustine High School, reports that she was initially reluctant to work with RSSI because of time constraints. Now, however, she believes the program has made her job easier. “There’s so much we couldn’t have done without RSSI’s help,” Russell said. “The staff cares about San Augustine and our students and they show it with their support.”

Opening Eyes

“If you’re a first-generation student, you don’t know what you don’t know,” said Sarah Ahrend, a recruiter for Texas A&M University-Commerce, “but that’s why we have so many resources on campus to help you be successful.” Ahrend was one of 16 college representatives speaking at a virtual college fair in November 2020 for approximately 100 students at San Augustine High School.

In addition to hosting college fairs and campus tours, RSSI specialists work with school guidance counselors to provide students and families accurate financial aid information.

The virtual event was arranged by Sandy Jenkins as well as Derek Nido ’11, a recruiter for Texas A&M, who rounded up counterparts from other schools, some from out of state, to participate. “I was impressed with the number of schools we got,” Jenkins said. “You could tell the recruiters were focused on what is best for the students, rather than trying to get them to their specific school.

Besides making events like this college fair possible, RSSI college access specialists design curricula and offer incentives to students and their parents to participate in events. For example, to encourage San Augustine High School students to complete the Apply Texas college application, RSSI offered prize drawings; to get parents and eighth grade students to attend an important information session, RSSI paid for food and a new iPad as a door prize.

“It’s a step in the right direction to start having conversations around higher education earlier, with eighth graders,” said Russell. Indeed, some of this will happen naturally as more students go to college or technical school. Adolfo Castro is already advising his younger sister on classes to take to prepare her for college.

Measuring Success

In the end, what will determine if RSSI makes it past the experimental stage and into a fully realized state initiative is proof of its sustainability and effectiveness. To gauge impact, independent program evaluation teams have been retained to assess RSSI’s results along a range of success indictors such as raising confidence among rural students and parents regarding college access and success, and increasing their financial aid and college-going knowledge.

Performance metrics are also being analyzed in five key areas in participating school districts: applications to postsecondary institutions; completion of the FAFSA application for financial aid; postsecondary matriculation rates; retention rates between the first and second year of college or training; and graduation rates.  

Results so far have been encouraging. From 2019 to 2020, 10 of the first cohort of 11 rural school districts saw an increase in applicants to college and postsecondary training. Of the 10 districts that experienced an increase, eight had an increase of five percentage points or greater. Data also shows that RSSI interventions increased the share of students completing the FAFSA by approximately five percentage points from 2019 to 2020.   

Financial concerns are one of the main obstacles preventing students from exploring postsecondary study or training. Many first-generation, low-income college-bound students and their families lack critical information about how need-based financial aid programs can substantially reduce the cost of attendance at a Texas institution. RSSI college access specialists work closely with school guidance counselors to provide students and families with accurate financial aid information to help them overcome these concerns.

A lack of money is also an issue for families when it comes to touring colleges, which makes RSSI-sponsored campus visits powerful experiences for rural students. Luna-Torres agrees with observations from RSSI’s preliminary evaluation report that states, “These tours help students visualize themselves as college students. One counselor reported that in the two weeks after taking her junior class to visit two universities, nine students came in and said, ‘I think I can go to college now.’ And these were kids who did not plan to attend before.”

The Aggie Boost

So, why are The Texas A&M University System and AgriLife Extension sponsoring RSSI? Consistent with their roles as prominent public institutions, both the System and Extension have significant statewide land-grant obligations to advance the prosperity of Texas and Texans. Plus, the Aggie call to service makes support for the program natural.

“Access to higher education is fundamental to who we are,” Ballabina said.

The program is currently funded through August 2021, while obtaining philanthropic support for the next two years is among its next steps. The idea is to build on the foundation Luna-Torres and her staff have established, continue to gather evidence of the program’s impact and, if warranted, seek support for a sustainable funding stream to scale its impact.

But no matter what happens, Aggies can be proud that the university system and the AgriLife network have been doing their best for the state and students like Adolfo Castro. “It’s good to know that someone’s there to help if you have a problem,” Castro said, “and that someone has your back.”

To learn more about RSSI, contact George Grainger, assistant vice president for strategic partnerships, below.