Utah’s rural high school students outpace urban kids in earning college credit

But smaller rural schools struggle to offer the hands-on training that some of their students want instead, one superintendent says.

(Payton Park | Courtesy Photo) Following his graduation ceremony on May 24, 2023, Payton Park, 19, stands with his diploma from Juab High School. He has earned 37 college credits through the state's concurrent enrollment program.

When Payton Park graduated from Juab High School last week, he walked away with more than a high school diploma — he also racked up 37 college credit hours.

He’ll soon jet off to Brazil for a two-year church mission. College will wait until fall 2025, he said, but thanks to Utah’s concurrent enrollment program, he won’t be too far behind his peers who start this fall.

“It (gave) me a really good perspective on how college will be,” Park said, “because they make the classes good for high school students who are transitioning.”

State lawmakers had been worried that students in Utah’s rural districts were not enjoying the same access to concurrent enrollment, also known as dual enrollment, which makes college courses available to high schoolers for both high school and college credit.

Access to these programs is especially important for rural students like Park, who tend to attend college at lower rates. And nationally, rural students have less access than their urban peers, according to a 2021 study by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

But that’s not the case in Utah — where rural high schoolers now show the highest participation rate, at 28%. For urban students, that percentage is 24%.

“I think there is a misconception out there that rural students don’t have access to concurrent enrollment,” Julie Hartley, an associate commissioner with the Utah System of Higher Education, told lawmakers earlier this month. “ ... I think it’s important for people to know that there really is strong access to those opportunities for rural students.”

And not all rural students are best served by college credit programs, added Royd Darrington, assistant superintendent of Juab School District. He urged wider access to career and technical education programs, which some smaller rural schools struggle to offer.

‘It’s not limited’

Lawmakers last month had requested a study on efforts by the Utah System of Higher Education, or USHE, to reach rural students, and Hartley and others shared the results with members of the Education Interim Committee on May 18.

“My concern is equal access for our rural students,” Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, said at the meeting. “To me, that is the group that we should especially be focusing on.”

Over the years, USHE, which oversees concurrent enrollment, with the Utah State Board of Education has worked to expand course options to rural high schools. The majority of Utah’s high school students have concurrent enrollment courses available to them, said Hartley, USHE’s associate commissioner of academic education.

Thirty-eight of the state’s 42 school districts offer at least eight different general education concurrent enrollment courses. Morgan, Ogden and Daggett school districts offer seven or fewer general education courses.

“They’re not limited to just one concurrent enrollment class,” Hartley said. “It’s not limited to the urban school districts. There are rural school districts as well that have that wide variety of course availability.”

Families are charged no more than $5 per credit hour. In the 2021-22 school year, nearly 50,000 students from 200 public, charter and alternative high schools earned college credit — which saved families $77.7 million in tuition.

Nearly 55% of the students were female; nearly 83% were white, according to USHE data. The next largest group was Latino and Latina concurrent enrollment students, at 11%.

Statewide, participation in concurrent enrollment increased by 6.1% from the 2020-21 school year to last year.

Eight colleges and universities have partnered with districts to offer concurrent enrollment courses, with the most students taking classes through Utah Valley University, Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College.

Considering rural students’ needs

Though Park plans to go to college, students living in Utah’s most rural communities have a variety of career goals, Darrington told lawmakers.

Often, rural students will gravitate toward industries that already exist where they live, he said, and may not feel they need to pursue a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

“The greater percentage of job opportunities for them will not require post-secondary training in a formal setting,” Darrington said. “It’s not a matter of talent or even opportunity. [It’s a matter of] is the juice worth the squeeze if all I want to do is get back to my community?”

Whether a student views college as a viable option often depends on “how rural” their community is, Darrington added.

Juab is “a little bit in that sweet spot,” because it can be considered both rural and a region with bedroom communities for more urban areas, he said, “but it would not be the same in Wayne County or Daggett or Kane.”

The solution, he said, is curating programs that align with the realities of rural students’ lives.

“When we propagate these statements that every kid needs to go to college, or we need to get them into this training that doesn’t even match up to their own reality,” Darrington said, “ ... we should also be looking broader at who are the clientele .... and are we providing a broad spectrum of opportunities for all those students to find that post-secondary success, whatever that is.”

He suggested that may look like helping rural schools scale their career and technical education programs. CTE courses build students’ technical and trade skills. They are typically hands-on and provide work-based learning opportunities. But often, rural schools are too small and don’t have adequate resources.

“I think we need to get better about a unified purpose, and then all of our efforts can be more aligned,” Darrington said, adding that this will require more collaboration between higher education institutions, school districts and the state.

Hartley agreed and said USHE is looking at ways to implement a statewide CTE program.

“The System of Technical Colleges just merged with the system of degree-granting colleges in 2020,” Hartley explained. “One of the things that we’re doing post-merger is figuring out the model for what we’re calling Technical Education in High School, and how to do that more systematically.”

“Stay tuned,” she added.