WIU wins $2.2M grant to increase rural student higher-ed access

It's one of just 22 institutions in nation to receive funding

Western Illinois University WIU

Western Illinois University (WIU) will receive $2.2 million in federal grants to improve college readiness and program completion rates for rural students through the Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development (RPED) grant program.

In all, $44.5 million in RPED grants will be provided to just 22 institutions of higher education across the country to improve rates of postsecondary education enrollment, persistence, and completion among students in rural communities.

That program, the U.S. Department of Education, said in a news release, also promotes the development of high-quality career pathways aligned to high-skill, high-wage, and in-demand industry sectors and occupations in the region.

WIU’s award of $2.2 million in funding over four years will be used to support the university’s Addressing Equity Gaps Among Rural Students (AEGARS) project. 

AEGARS’ objectives

The AEGARS project has four core objectives, according to a WIU news release:

  • Increase enrollment for secondary students by improving college readiness and access to postsecondary education through coordination with rural local education agencies. 
  • Increase first-year retention for students by improving support for new incoming freshmen transitioning from rural high schools to a four-year institution. 
  • Increase third-year retention rates among students by developing targeted programs. 
  • Increase post-graduation employment rates of students by supporting workforce development and enhancing academic career pathways in rural culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

In America’s rural communities, the U.S. Department of Education said, 29% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 are enrolled in higher education. That compared to almost 48% of their counterparts in urban areas and 42% in suburban areas. 

In addition to navigating how to pay for college and the application process, students in rural areas also face other barriers in accessing and completing college. They include: reliable transportation, food and housing insecurity, and access to health care and high-speed internet.

Aim to break barriers

To help meet those challenges, the RPED grant will provide WIU, which has campuses in Macomb and Moline, with $2.2 million over four years. That funding, the federal education department said, will improve college readiness and access through cross-agency coordination with rural local education agencies and the implementation of evidence-based and culturally relevant pedagogies and programming.

WIU Political Science Professor Julia Albarracín is the AEGARS project principal investigator, and Justin Schuch, WIU executive director of Retention Initiatives, is its co-principal investigator.

“We are grateful to the Department of Education for this award, and are very excited for this opportunity, which will provide us with the resources to support our students and increase access to higher education for underserved communities in the region,” Ms. Albarracín said in the release.

WIU President Guiyou Huang added, “I commend the team across the university who worked on this vital grant.”

He said: “This award will allow students in our region to increase their access to higher education, and Western students to boost their graduation rates and workforce participation after graduation, thus also contributing to the economic growth of our region. We are truly excited to work on this project in partnership with the Department of Education.” 

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