Vanderbilt University joins effort to help students from small-town and rural America connect to higher education

Public, private universities in STARS College Network will collaborate to create educational pathways for students

Sixteen of the nation’s most prominent universities and colleges, including Vanderbilt University, have teamed up in a new effort to help students from small-town and rural America enroll in, succeed at and graduate from the undergraduate program of their choice.

With a $20 million gift from philanthropist Byron Trott, the STARS (Small-Town And Rural Students) College Network will build on efforts to create pathways to college for students who might not otherwise recognize the full range of educational opportunities available to them.

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 institution, according to Jim Nondorf, STARS co-chair and vice president of enrollment and student advancement at the University of Chicago. The network includes Ivy League universities, state flagships and leading private schools.

Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said joining STARS is in keeping with the university’s commitment to diversify its student body and eliminate barriers to entry for qualified students.

“In Tennessee, rural students make up 29 percent of the population,” Diermeier said. “We have a responsibility to engage with these students and their families to help them prepare for college and understand their options, whether they choose Vanderbilt or not. We must also ensure that the rural students admitted to Vanderbilt fully feel they belong to our community from day one.”

By teaming up and redoubling their 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, building an ecosystem of opportunity that spans the nation, according to Douglas L. Christiansen, STARS co-chair and vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid at Vanderbilt.

Member institutions said STARS will support efforts including:

  • pipeline programs that bring students from rural communities and small towns to campus over summer breaks to help them prepare academically and socially for college
  • 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
  • help navigating financial aid and scholarship opportunities
  • 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
  • creation of 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
  • partnerships with local and national businesses to provide internships and job opportunities for the next generation of rural America

All programming is free to students who register with STARS.

STARS is also teaming up with Khan Academy 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.

Trott, the founding supporter of STARS and chairman and co-CEO of BDT & MSD Partners, was inspired by the ways college transformed his own journey, which began in small-town Union, Missouri, and included undergraduate and MBA degrees from the University of Chicago. Trott-affiliated philanthropic efforts have provided substantial support to students from small towns and rural communities, including through launching rootEd Alliance, which has convened philanthropists as well as funding from Missouri, Texas, Tennessee and Idaho, to train and place 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 said. “These smaller communities simply don’t have the resources to help show these students what is possible and help them get there. 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.”

Students who live outside metropolitan areas face a variety of obstacles to pursuing a college degree, college admissions professionals say. College recruiters, facing their own resource limitations, often bypass smaller communities—the same communities where students are less likely to encounter programs that help with college applications, financial aid paperwork and standardized test preparation.

Students say that a big part of the challenge is simply understanding what is possible and feeling welcome at institutions that can seem unfamiliar and intimidating.

STARS network members also will build upon existing programs that help provide a support network for newly enrolled students from small towns and rural areas—the kind of support many colleges already provide for students from other 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 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, said 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 said.

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 also will 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 virtuous cycle of support, success and giving back to the next generation.

In addition to Vanderbilt, the STARS network includes Brown University, California Institute of Technology, Case Western Reserve University, Colby College, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, University of Chicago, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin, Washington University in St. Louis and Yale University.

Students can learn more and participate in the STARS programs at