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$20 million gift from “Giving Pledge” signatories Byron and Tina Trott to help rural students earn college degrees
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$20 million gift from “Giving Pledge” signatories Byron and Tina Trott to help rural students earn college degrees

The University of Iowa and 15 of the nation’s most prominent universities and colleges have teamed up in a new effort to help students from small towns and rural America enroll in, succeed in, and graduate from the undergraduate program of their choice.

The STARS College Network (Small-Town And Rural Students) will build on efforts to create new pathways to college for students who might not otherwise recognize the full range of educational opportunities available to them. It is supported by a $20 million gift from Trott Family Philanthropies, the foundation of Byron and Tina Trott.

This nationwide effort, the first of its kind, is designed to empower students to find the best institution for them, whether or not they ultimately choose to enroll at a STARS member, according to Jim Nondorf, STARS co-chair and vice president of enrollment and student advancement at the University of Chicago.

The network also includes Brown University, California Institute of Technology, Case Western Reserve University, Colby College, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, The Ohio State University, University of Chicago, University of Maryland, University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin, Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale University.

By teaming up and redoubling their own efforts, STARS members also hope to inspire other institutions, alumni, philanthropists, and policymakers to increase their efforts to support students in rural areas and small towns, creating opportunity across the nation.

“Throughout its history, the University of Iowa’s mission has focused on opening new doors for students throughout the state,” says Brent Gage, UI associate vice president for enrollment management. “We’re excited to join this effort further to expand educational access in rural parts of Iowa.”

Member institutions say STARS will support efforts including:

Pipeline programs that bring students from rural communities and small towns to campus over summer break to help them prepare academically and for college life

On-campus events for prospective students from rural areas and small towns, including flying students in from their hometowns

Expanded visits by college admissions staff to high schools in small towns and rural communities

Support for students in the college application process, including workshops and sessions designed to help students throughout their college search

Scholarship funds for students and help applying for financial aid

Fly-in and virtual programs for counselors, teachers, and administrators from rural and small-town high schools, to help them better support their students on the path to college

Creating ambassador and mentor roles for current students, faculty, and staff, to promote a campus community that welcomes and supports students from small-town and rural America

Partnering with local and national businesses to provide internships and job opportunities for the next generation of rural and small-town Americans.

All programming is free to students who register with STARS.

STARS also is teaming up with Khan Academy (featured earlier in an exclusive cover story in Lifestyles Magazine/Meaningful Influence) and the nonprofit tutoring platform Schoolhouse to offer a free, online math curriculum and peer tutoring for students in small towns and rural communities, leading to certification of mastery in calculus—an important credential for admission to more selective colleges and universities that is not available from all high schools.

Founding supporter Byron D. Trott, chairman and co-CEO of BDT & MSD Partners, says he was inspired by the ways in which college transformed his own journey, which began in small-town Union, Missouri, and included undergraduate and MBA degrees at the University of Chicago. Trott’s affiliated philanthropic efforts have provided substantial support to students from small towns and rural communities, including through launching rootEd Alliance, which trains and places dedicated college and career counselors in rural high schools.

“There is a massive talent pool in our small towns and rural communities that has so much to offer—to our colleges, to society, and to future generations,” Trott says. “These smaller communities simply don’t have the resources to help show these students what is possible and help them get there. Collaborative partnerships like STARS and rootEd not only help to turn the tide—they have a multiplier effect that can catalyze far greater change than any single institution or agency could make on its own.”

STARS Network members will also build upon existing programs that help provide a support network for students from small towns and rural areas once they have enrolled—the kind of support many colleges already provide for students from different backgrounds. STARS leaders say this work is central to their mission of creating a student body that brings together a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Undertaking it as a network will allow them to build on best practices.

In addition to illuminating opportunities for students, the launch of STARS complements and can help facilitate efforts to make college more affordable, such as the Davis New Mexico Scholarship. The Davis New Mexico Scholarship has already partnered with institutions including the University of Chicago to support more than 250 first-generation students from New Mexico. Andrew Davis, who founded the $60 million effort, says he hopes to expand college access nationwide.

“College access initiatives, ongoing support programs, and meaningful scholarships must work hand in hand to support underrepresented students all the way from high school to college graduation,” Davis says.

Ultimately, STARS members say this ecosystem of initiatives can help bridge the growing rural-urban divide in America, by bringing students together to share the widest possible variety of experiences.

Increased enrollment of students from other parts of the country will also help institutions achieve diversity in more traditional metrics, such as first-generation and low-income students. An estimated one-third of students from rural and small-town America are people of color.

Research shows that college graduates from rural areas often return to their communities, so efforts to help rural students get the greatest benefit from higher education can create a cycle of support, success, and giving back to the next generation.

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