How a billionaire banker is helping elite U.S. colleges recruit new talent
Byron Trott says the small Missouri town where he grew up wasn’t the kind of place that got regular visits from admissions officers from Yale, MIT or his own alma mater, the University of Chicago.
Now the billionaire banker, who rose to the top levels of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. before founding his own firm, is backing an effort to change that.
Trott and his wife, Tina, have funded a $20 million initiative for those schools and more than a dozen others to step up their recruiting in rural areas and underrepresented towns, from east Tennessee to Pecos, New Mexico.
“Setting these students up for success requires broader support, including guidance through the admissions process and help preparing academically and socially for college life,” said Trott, who in his finance career earned the title of Warren Buffett’s favorite banker.
Trott’s push to open doors is finding a receptive audience at elite colleges, which have been forced to rethink recruitment after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that effectively ruled against using race in admissions. Stepping up rural outreach won’t necessarily help increase racial and ethnic diversity, which universities say they’re still committed to. But many schools are also sharpening their focus on attracting top students from parts of the country that have been overlooked and left behind economically.
“In light of the new legal landscape we really want to focus on geography in a way that we haven’t in the past,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions. “Diversity is still important to us, but it’s limited. It doesn’t mean we can’t invest and focus in lots of different ways, including rural.”
Trott is far from alone in scouring rural areas for promising students. Community-based programs are common, such as Idaho-based Palouse Pathways, the Davis New Mexico Scholarship and Pennsylvania’s Lenfest Scholars Foundation. And some individual schools have their own efforts. Brown University, for example, flew a small group of rising high school seniors from rural and small-town communities to its campus in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2019.
For example, Palouse Pathways—which differs from the others in that it doesn't get funding from a foundation or donor and relies on a staff of volunteers—starts with students in grade 9 and helps younger students explore and prepare for the admissions process. In their scholars program includes 75 students from Whitman County Washington and Latah County Idaho, and 35 students from Nez Perce tribe who attend school in Lapwai, Idaho
But Trott, chairman and co-CEO of merchant bank BDT & MSD Partners, saw a need for more. In April, Trott Family Philanthropies announced the creation of the Small Town and Rural Students College Network, or Stars. Its 16-school roster includes elite private colleges such as Northwestern, Brown and Columbia, as well as flagship public universities including Ohio State and the University of Iowa. Trott said he wants to double the number of institutions.
Rural areas lag behind cities in college education. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 21% of working-age adults in rural parts of the country had a bachelor’s degree or higher in the five-year period ending in 2021, compared with 37% in urban areas. Many of the places the colleges are combing for students are economically disadvantaged. Internet service can be spotty, high-paying jobs are often limited, and more than a few recruits would be the first in their family to attend college.
One of the students who could benefit from Trott’s initiative is Julian Bailon Hernandez, a 17-year-old senior at Wichita East High School in Kansas, where most students receive a free or reduced-priced lunch. He wants to be an engineer, but he hadn’t thought of applying to top colleges until he went to a fair arranged by a group that collaborates with Stars schools.
“Before, I was thinking of applying to my local school here in the city, Wichita State,” said Bailon Hernandez, whose mother cleans motel rooms and father works in construction. “Now, I have opened my spectrum.”
Trott has long funded scholarships and provided support through the Rooted Alliance, which helps guide students through high school and career options. He took a special interest in rural recruitment at his alma mater a few years before the pandemic.
He and Chicago’s admissions dean, Jim Nondorf, had bonded over their similar backgrounds as first-generation college students whose fathers worked as linemen for local utility companies. They also had sports in common: Trott played baseball and football for Chicago; while Nondorf, who grew up in Indiana, played football at Yale.
Prodded by Trott, Nondorf found that in 2018, Chicago identified just 160 students in its applicant pool with rural backgrounds. Six enrolled out of a freshman class of about 2,000. Only one was a first-generation student, and two qualified for need-based financial aid.
The next year, the school started the Trott Rural Initiative. Now, the freshman class has more than 120 rural students. More than a fifth of them are the first in their families to go to college, and 80% qualify for financial aid.
“Rural students have been overlooked or ignored for far too long,” Nondorf said.
Recruiting more such students won’t always help colleges increase racial and ethnic diversity on campus. In rural areas, students are about 71% white, compared with the national average of 52%. But colleges say they would enrich campus life by bringing different perspectives from upbringings in small towns.
Forging paths for rural students would also give a boost to local economies, since many graduates return home, said Trott, who earned money for his own college tuition by running a lawnmowing business and a shop selling jeans back home in Union, Missouri.
Educational attainment is “often the ticket to self-determination in the economy and the differentiator between leading economic change and being led by it,” said Kenan Fikri, research director for the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington-based nonprofit that seeks to raise economic dynamism.
At Yale, the Stars program adds to an initiative started several years ago to encourage rural students to apply as the college seeks to expand admissions outreach and build new pipelines. Yale is also stepping up recruitment in its hometown of New Haven, Connecticut.
The university was sued in 2021 by Students for Fair Admissions, the organization whose lawsuit against Harvard and the University of North Carolina gave rise to the Supreme Court decision. Students for Fair Admissions dismissed its case against Yale after reviewing the school’s plan to comply with the ruling — including its search for more rural students, among other steps.
Admissions officers spend the fall fanning across the U.S. before sifting through early applications due in November. The Stars schools are using the same group travel model across rural areas that colleges typically use in many metro areas as a way to reach more students.
They’re also tapping into regional organizations such as the Niswonger Foundation, which was started by Scott Niswonger and has been pushing educational improvement for 20 years in eastern Tennessee. A recent college fair in Greeneville, a town of about 15,000 an hour east of Knoxville, drew about 60 students and their parents to a high school auditorium also named for Niswonger, who started the transportation provider Forward Air Corp.
“I was surprised that Vanderbilt and Yale came,” said Bethanie Bryant, a 16-year-old junior at Greeneville High School who attended the fair with her mother. “I’m thinking I’ll go in-state. Vanderbilt is probably as far as I’ll go.”
That’s encouraging for John Palmer Rea, associate director of Vanderbilt’s office of undergraduate admissions, who organized the Tennessee tour. For Stars, which is run by University of Chicago admissions officer Marjie Betley, the goal is to replicate that process nationwide.
“Bright, talented, hard-working students are out there,” Betley said. “They just haven’t been told that schools like UChicago or any of the Stars schools could be great options for them.”
This story has been updated to include additional information.