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Rural Route

Growing up outside Osceola, Wisconsin—population 2,700—Elizabeth Peterson hauled hay bales and helped take care of the 70 head of Limousin cattle on her family farm, extracurricular labors that don’t show up on many college applications. But those experiences had an indelible mark on her education.

“I have learned many life lessons that I have used and hope to pass on someday,” says Peterson, a senior majoring in biology.

For generations, CALS classrooms have been enriched by students who, like Peterson, have roots in rural, agrarian communities. But for many of those students, access to higher education is becoming a higher hurdle. With average incomes in rural communities lagging those in cities by some 20 percent, tuition and housing expenses are priced beyond what many rural families can afford. Federal and state financial aid often aren’t enough to compensate—UW-Madison officials estimate that the total aid packages offered to students fall about $20 million short of their needs. And because of sagging budgets, the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board projects that 20,000 low-income students won’t receive state grants this year.

To help fill the gap, CALS launched the Wisconsin Rural Youth Scholarship Fund, a need-based program to support students from Wisconsin’s more than 220 rural high schools. Started in 2008, the fund awarded its first 12 scholarships this academic year, including one to Peterson.

“(The scholarship) means more than I can express in helping me follow my dreams,” says Peterson, who plans to become a pediatrician. “There are many kids out there like me who can use this same help.”

Currently, only 14 percent of the scholarships and awards offered by CALS use financial need as a component. But according to UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, the gap between the total aid package available to students and the actual cost of the university grew 28 percent between 2000 and 2005, underscoring the need for a new focus on need-based aid. In 2008, Martin kicked off the Great People Scholarship campaign to significantly boost the university’s pool of need-based aid, and she has charged all colleges to ramp up their efforts to address students’ unmet financial need.

The Wisconsin Rural Youth Scholarship fits the goals of the Great People campaign in a way that complements CALS’ history and mission, says Interim Dean Irwin Goldman PhD’91. “A vibrant community of students from rural backgrounds broadens the educational experience for all of our students,” he says. “This is the right thing to do because rural communities are an important part of our legacy—and they’re perhaps even more important to our future.”