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Caltech Joins STARS College Network

Published on Tuesday, April 4, 2023 | 5:31 pm

Caltech has joined with 15 of the nation’s most prominent universities and colleges in a new effort to help students from small-town and rural America enroll in, succeed at, and graduate from the undergraduate program of their choice.

The STARS College Network (Small-Town And Rural Students) will build on efforts to create new pathways to college for students who might not otherwise recognize the full range of educational opportunities available to them. It is supported by a $20 million gift from Trott Family Philanthropies, the foundation of Byron and Tina Trott. Founding supporter Byron D. Trott, chairman and co-CEO of BDT & MSD Partners, was inspired by the ways in which college transformed his own journey, which began in small-town Union, Missouri, and included undergraduate and MBA degrees at the University of Chicago.

This nationwide effort, the first of its kind, is designed to empower students to find the best institution for them, even if they ultimately decline to enroll at a STARS member.

“The experiences of rural students are very diverse, and their perspectives matter on college campuses,” says Ashley Pallie, Caltech’s director of undergraduate admissions. “We look for the best and brightest STEM minds in the world, and we recognize that students do not all have the same opportunities to showcase their passion for STEM. We need to ensure that these students know that they matter to us and our admissions process, and also that they know their talents are welcome at Caltech.”

In addition to Caltech, the network includes Brown University, Case Western Reserve University, Colby College, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, The Ohio State University, University of Chicago, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin, Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale University.

By banding together and redoubling their own efforts, STARS founders say they hope to inspire other institutions, alumni, philanthropists, and policymakers to increase support for high school students in rural areas and small towns, building a national ecosystem of opportunity.

“High schools tend to promote opportunities that would benefit or interest the majority of their students,” says Caltech undergraduate Tessa Pierce, who grew up in Newport, Washington, a small town an hour north of Spokane, and who is an undergraduate admissions ambassador. “In my own experience, this meant that I heard a lot about trade schools and community colleges but not much about elite universities, since the majority of students who would have been interested in attending a university of this caliber or competitiveness was relatively low. The most difficult part of the college application process for me was finding schools that were at my academic level. I think if more rural students heard about Caltech, it might be easier to reach the students who would be a good fit.”

STARS will support:

• Pipeline programs that bring students from rural communities and small towns to campus over summer break to help them prepare academically and for college life
• On-campus events for prospective students from rural areas and small towns, including flying students in from their hometowns
• Expanded visits by college admissions staff 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
• Scholarship funds for students and financial aid application assistance
• Fly-in and virtual programs for counselors, teachers, and administrators from rural and small-town high schools, to help them better support students on the path to college
• Creating ambassador and mentor roles for current students, faculty, and staff, to promote a campus community that welcomes and supports students from small-town and rural America
• Partnering with local and national businesses to provide internships and job opportunities for the next generation of rural and small-town Americans

All programming is free to students who register with STARS.

“The STARS program broadens our reach and allows us to do more concerted outreach,” says Pallie. “We can fly students to campus, and fly to meet with students and their parents and counselors, traveling across large swaths of America in search of the best and brightest students. To be prepared with materials that speak to the experiences of rural students and to have a clear proclamation that rural students matter is enormously helpful.”

STARS is also partnering with Khan Academy and the nonprofit tutoring platform Schoolhouse to offer a free online math curriculum and peer tutoring for students in small towns and rural communities, leading to certification of mastery in calculus—an important credential for admission to more selective colleges and universities that is not available from all high schools.

STARS Network members will also build upon existing programs that help provide a support network for students from small towns and rural areas once they have enrolled—the kind of support many colleges already provide for students from different backgrounds.

Ultimately, STARS members say this ecosystem of initiatives can help bridge the growing rural-urban divide in America by bringing students together to share the widest possible variety of experiences.

“Students in rural communities need to learn that places like Caltech are options for them,” says Caltech undergraduate student Thomas Cleveland, an undergraduate admissions ambassador who comes from the small town of Falcon, Missouri. “It’s far too easy for people to forget that schools outside their state exist in the first place, let alone can be applied to just the same. But people from rural communities can attend places like Caltech and can do well, and will find their experiences potentially more worthwhile than at local schools. Having a one-stop-shop website that gives general guidelines of how to find and apply to these schools would be beneficial. This sort of thing wasn’t obvious to me when I was applying; I had to do everything on my own.”

Students can learn more and participate in STARS programs at For additional information on Caltech’s STARS activities and application process, visit Caltech’s Undergraduate Admissions web page on the program.

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