Eastern Oregon University, Umpqua Community College receive money to help prepare rural students for college

Two Oregon colleges will receive a boost in funding for their efforts to help recruit and retain rural students. For Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, the money will build a brand new program aimed at connecting students as young as fifth grade with college aspirations. At Roseburg-based Umpqua Community College, it means expanding a program that already connects public schools with college and career resources.

Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley announced last week that roughly $2.4 million in grant money will go to EOU and Umpqua to support programs focused on rural students. The colleges will receive $1.2 million each.

At Eastern, that money will go toward kickstarting a new program called Achieving Careers for Rural Oregon Student Success, or ACROSS. Its aim is to increase outreach to schools in the region and provide courses that allow students to earn credits for high school and college at the same time. Kathleen Brown, EOU’s associate director of early college initiatives, will be a big part of implementing the new program.

Brown said the funding will help the university hire two college engagement specialists to support the ACROSS program as it gets off the ground. Brown said she and the new hires will be able to travel to schools throughout the region to meet students in person and talk to them about EOU.

“We have some obvious places where we get students. We get people from Pendleton. We get people from La Grande High. We get people from Baker,” Brown said. “But there are some small schools where they’ve reached out to us… So, let’s go out there.”

EOU will begin implementing the program in October, when it can officially access the grant money. But Brown said the university is already starting to do some work in the meantime.

Part of preparing for the ACROSS program will be beefing up what Brown calls “pre-college success courses.” She said that means increasing both online and in-person dual-credit offerings for rural high school students.

Brown said the idea is to provide offerings to help students “not just take random dual credits but be able to really focus and see what they can do so they can be successful here.” But Brown said EOU is still in the process of mapping out what exactly those offerings will be.

“Different things such as like econ or music or whatever the major is — grab one or two of their really dynamic classes and be able to allow students to take those here or online,” Brown said. “You always have classes that have a few extra spots in them, so why don’t we allow our high school students to go in those?”

High school students who pass classes through those dual credit pathways could enter EOU with enough credits to be at sophomore standing, Brown said. And for students who enroll at EOU, a big focus will still be making sure that students are acclimated to college and have the support they’re used to coming from smaller communities.

“One of the things that we have is a bunch of students will go somewhere and it sounds great and they’re taking these dual credits, but then they come to a university and it’s like, ‘Whoa, I don’t have the exact same supports that I had before because I had my mom, and I had my dad, and I had my counselor and all my teachers,’” Brown said.

At EOU, Brown says, there’s a recognition that rural students are coming from tight-knit, small communities and might have different experiences than students from larger cities around the state.

“We want to just basically have this smooth transition from all these loving people that have put an inordinate amount of time into you, and this is going to be the next group of people that do the same thing,” she said. “So, we want to be able to have that same feel, and I think that Eastern is primed for that because we are a small institution and we have small classrooms.”

Tim Seydel, EOU’s vice president of university advancement, has a broader aspiration for the ACROSS program. He hopes it, and programs like it, will help change the mindset surrounding college in rural Oregon.

“We also want to see that college-going culture change out here, so they see it as more of an opportunity of something that they can do,” Seydel said. “[With] these classes, they’ll build some of that cohort before they even get here, so when it comes to thinking about college, it’s something they’ve already been doing.”

At Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, the $1.2 million will go to its Work-based Integration into Rural Education, or WIRE, program. That program is also focused on early outreach and recruitment, with a focus on reaching out to smaller communities in its surrounding region.

“As a relentless collaborator with all K-12 partners in Douglas County, Umpqua Community College will amplify this work with financial and program support,” Umpqua Community College President Rachel Pokrandt said in a statement. “The grant pays for a UCC specialist to support the outlying communities of Days Creek, Elkton, Glendale, North Douglas, Riddle, Winston and Yoncalla. Supports will include career services, clear pathways to high wage and high demand workforce jobs, internship opportunities with industry partners, and wrap-around services such as advising, tutoring, mental health needs.”

Wyden and Merkley said the grants at UCC and EOU will eventually help rural students access high-wage jobs.

“Students exposed to quality college and career preparation graduate from high school at higher rates and are more prepared to get good-paying jobs in the field of their choice,” Wyden said in a statement. “I have seen first-hand what college prep and career and technical education programs can do here in the most rural and remote parts of Oregon, so I am gratified to see funding go to expand access to programs at Eastern Oregon and Umpqua that prepare rural students to tackle an increasingly competitive job market.”