UChicago strengthens commitment to students from small-town communities

Peer institutions partner to provide support through the STARS College Network

Savannah Doty always knew she wanted to go to college, but growing up in rural Colfax, Wash., she felt like her only option was to stay close to home.

“I had never imagined leaving my small-town community for a prestigious school like UChicago until I learned how the College supports students like me through programs that offer one-on-one mentorship, social connections and financial aid assistance,” said Doty, now a third-year College student at the University of Chicago. “This shifted my perspective on what my future could look like, and I am grateful to be part of this community with ongoing support for my rural identity.”

Doty and many of her peers from rural communities face a variety of obstacles to pursuing a college degree. They’re often bypassed by college recruiters, and less likely to encounter programs that help with college applications, financial aid paperwork and standardized test preparation.

Savannah Doty
Savannah Doty

In recent years, UChicago has emerged as a national leader in recruiting and supporting talented students from rural and small-town backgrounds. Now the University is taking the next step, co-leading and launching a network of 16 prominent universities and colleges, who are working to open the doors even wider for students who grow up outside the orbit of major cities.

The STARS College Network (Small-Town And Rural Students) is a new nationwide effort that aims to empower students from small-town and rural America to enroll and successfully graduate from the undergraduate program of their choice.

“The STARS College Network allows us to work together with our peers to even better reach students and help them to find the best institution for them – whether or not they ultimately choose a STARS member institution,” said James G. Nondorf, vice president for enrollment and student advancement and dean of admissions and financial aid at UChicago. “We are thrilled to join this effort and work toward even greater accessibility for all students.”

Members hope that these efforts can help bridge the growing rural-urban divide in America, by bringing students together to share a wide variety of experiences. Research shows that college graduates from rural areas often return to their communities, so efforts to help rural students get the greatest benefit from their higher education can create a cycle of support, success and giving back to the next generation.

STARS-affiliated programs at member schools will support pipeline programs that bring students from rural communities and small towns to campus over summer break to help them prepare academically and socially for college, on-campus events for prospective students from rural areas and small towns, expanded visits by college admissions staff to high schools in small towns and rural communities, college application support programs and other resources to help students navigate the college decision-making process.

The STARS College Network is supported by a $20 million gift from Trott Family Philanthropies, the foundation of Byron Trott and Tina Trott. Merchant banker Byron Trott, AB'81, MBA'82, chairman and co-CEO of BDT & MSD Partners, remembers his time in the College and how it changed his trajectory, which began in small-town Union, Mo.

“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 said. “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 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.”

At UChicago, enrollment of students from small towns and rural communities has grown more than 80 percent since 2018. This is due in large part to the Emerging Rural Leaders II Program, which brings high school seniors from rural and small-town high schools to campus for a weeklong enrichment program; enhanced financial aid policies and scholarships, including Odyssey Scholarships which provide support for students from lower-income families or who are the first in their family to attend college; as well as the creation of the Rural Student Alliance, a student-run organization that provides ongoing peer-to-peer mentorship and support for current UChicago students.

Learn how you can support Odyssey scholars from rural communities.

“Knowing that UChicago offered resources for rural students, and that I would be surrounded by others from similar backgrounds made me feel so much more comfortable and excited to come here,” said Jojo Tenn, a second-year College student from Ash Fork, Ariz. “The continued support and social outreach offered on campus has made my transition to a big city much easier than I imagined.”

Jojo Tenn
Jojo Tenn

STARS funding will help bring more rural and small-town high school students to UChicago’s campus through the Emerging Rural Leaders summer programs, increase the number of rural and small-town high schools visited by Admissions, and create new fly-in programs for rural educators and administrators. In addition to supporting high school students, UChicago students will also benefit from new partnerships with national and local companies that offer internships and job opportunities in rural areas, the chance to mentor STARS students as tutors through, and additional funding for events hosted by the Rural Student Alliance.

“UChicago is always in search of the best and brightest students, regardless of background,” said Nondorf, who serves as a STARS Network co-chair. “We are honored to be a leader in this important initiative and connect students across the country with resources needed to succeed.”

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UChicago uses the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) standardized locale designations to guide our process of identifying and defining rural and small-town high schools.