Utah’s rural high school students outperform city kids in academic achievement

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

He soon flies to Brazil on a two-year church mission. College will wait until fall 2025, he said, but thanks to Utah’s concurrent enrollment program, he won’t fall too far behind his fellow students, who start this fall.

“It gave me a really good glimpse of what college is going to be like,” Park said, “because they’re making the classes suitable for high school students who are in transition.”

State legislators had concerns that students in rural Utah counties would not enjoy equal access to concurrent enrollment, also known as dual enrollment, which leaves high school students with college courses for both high school and college -Credits are available.

Access to these programs is particularly important for rural students like Park, who tend to attend college at lower rates. Nationwide, 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 school students now have the highest participation rate at 28%. For urban students, this percentage is 24%.

“I believe there is a misconception that rural students do not have access to concurrent enrollment,” Julie Hartley, deputy commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, told lawmakers earlier this month. “…I think it’s important that people know that rural students actually have good access to these opportunities.”

And not all rural students are best served by college credit programs, added Royd Darrington, associate principal of the Juab School District. He urged wider access to vocational and technical education programs, which some smaller rural schools struggle to provide.

“It is not limited”

Last month, lawmakers requested a study into the Utah System of Higher Education’s (USHE) efforts to reach rural students, and Hartley and others shared the findings May 18 with members of the Education Interim Committee.

“My concern is equal access for our rural students,” MP Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, said at the meeting. “For me, that’s the group we should focus on.”

Over the years, USHE, which oversees concurrent enrollment, has worked with the Utah State Board of Education to expand course offerings to rural high schools. Concurrent enrollment courses are available to the majority of Utah high school students, said Hartley, USHE associate commissioner for higher education.

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

“You’re not limited to just one course with simultaneous enrollment,” Hartley said. “It’s not limited to city school districts. There are also rural school districts that have such a wide range of courses.”

Families will not be charged 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 — saving families $77.7 million in tuition.

Almost 55% of the students were female; According to USHE data, nearly 83% were white. The next largest group were simultaneously enrolled Latinos and Latinas 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 parallel enrollment courses, with most students taking courses at Utah Valley University, Weber State University, and Salt Lake Community College.

Considering the needs of rural students

Though Park plans to go to college, students living in Utah’s most rural communities have different career aspirations, Darrington told lawmakers.

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

“The larger percentage of job opportunities for them do not require post-secondary education in a formal setting,” Darrington said. “It’s not about talent or even opportunities. [It’s a matter of] Is it worth the juice if I just want to get back to my community?”

Whether a student sees 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 could be considered both rural and a dorm-sharing region for more urban areas, he said, “but it wouldn’t be the same in Wayne County, Daggett or Kane.”

The solution, he said, is to curate programs that align with the realities of rural student life.

“If we’re spreading the claim that every kid needs to go to college, or that we need to get them into this education that doesn’t even match their own reality,” Darrington said, “…we should also look broader at Who’s the Clientele.” ..and do we offer all students a wide range of opportunities to achieve post-secondary success, whatever that is?”

He suggested that this could be to help rural schools expand their vocational and technical education programs. CTE courses strengthen students’ technical and manual skills. They are usually practice-oriented and offer opportunities for on-the-job learning. However, rural schools are often too small and do not have sufficient resources.

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

Hartley agreed, saying USHE is looking at ways to implement a statewide CTE program.

“The technical college system has merged with the degree-granting college system in 2020,” Hartley explained. “One of the things we’re doing post-merger is finding the model for what we call technical education in high school and how we can implement that more systematically.”

“Stay tuned in,” she added.

Justin Scaccy

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