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UW–Madison is part of new national effort to increase college access for rural, small-town students

April 4, 2023 By Doug Erickson

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is joining 15 other prominent universities and colleges in a first-of-its-kind effort to help students from small towns and rural communities enroll in college and earn undergraduate degrees.

The Small Town and Rural Students (STARS) College Network will build on existing recruiting efforts and create new pathways for students who might not otherwise recognize the full range of educational options available to them. The effort is funded by a $20 million gift from philanthropist Byron Trott.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to redouble our efforts at recruiting talented students from rural communities and small towns while more broadly contributing to a national network that will open the doors of higher education to students from smaller communities,” UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin says. “By working together, we can build on the best practices at each institution, expand our reach and work to further reduce barriers to access.”

The effort advances many of UW–Madison’s core goals, Mnookin says, including making sure that Wisconsin’s flagship public university is accessible and affordable to students and supporting a student body that brings together a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.

The nationwide effort is designed to empower students to find the best institution for them, whether they ultimately enroll at one of the 16 institutions in the network or not. In addition to UW–Madison, the network includes Ivy League universities such as Brown and Yale, state flagships such as The Ohio State University and the University of Maryland, and leading private schools such as the University of Chicago and the California Institute of Technology.

Students who live outside metro areas face unique obstacles to attending college, says Derek Kindle, UW–Madison vice provost for enrollment management.

“These students may not have easy access to college-going resources like financial aid workshops or college counselors,” Kindle says. “Our duty is to engage these students and to partner with other supporters around the state and beyond. We are excited to join a network of top institutions committed to addressing and hopefully eliminating these barriers.”

At UW–Madison and elsewhere, the network’s funding is expected to support efforts including:

  • Pathway programs that bring students from rural communities and small towns to campus over summer break to help them gain exposure to campus life and academic resources;
  • Expanded visits by college admissions teams 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;
  • 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; and
  • Partnerships with local and national businesses to provide internships and job opportunities for the next generation of students from small towns and rural communities.

Many recent initiatives at UW–Madison have been part of a concerted effort to ensure affordability and accessibility for students from all corners of the state, including small towns and rural communities. Those efforts include Bucky’s Tuition Promise, launched in 2018, and Bucky’s Pell Pathway, announced in February by Chancellor Mnookin.

Ultimately, STARS members say the new network and its efforts can help bridge the growing rural-urban divide in America by bringing students together to share the widest possible variety of experiences. Additionally, 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 cycle of support, success and giving back to the next generation.

More information on the STARS College Network can be found at

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