Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Election results lead colleges to put more focus on reaching 'hard-to-get-to' rural students

John Dunn of Rose Hill, N.C., is the first in his family to
finish high school. He is a freshman at North Carolina
State University. (New York Times photo: Jeremy Lange)
The strong rural showing during the November election has not been lost on colleges and universities, Laura Pappano reports for The New York Times. "Given election results that turned up the volume on the concerns of rural Americans, who voted their discontent over lost jobs and economic disparities, higher-education leaders are now talking about how to reach the hard-to-get-to." Rural public schools educate about 18 percent of the nation's student population.

"While students in rural high schools graduate at rates second only to suburban students (80 percent, compared with 81 percent), and perform at or above other students on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, they enroll in four-year degree programs and pursue advanced degrees at lower rates," Pappano reports. "Just 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in rural areas are enrolled in college, compared with 47 percent of their urban peers. Research also shows that they 'under-match,' attending less competitive colleges than their school performance suggests, often favoring community colleges."

Pappano writes, "To college administrators, rural students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, have become the new underrepresented minority. In their aim to shape leaders and provide access to the disadvantaged, higher-education experts have been recognizing that these students bring valuable experiences and viewpoints to campuses that don’t typically attract agriculture majors."

Rural students often face greater challenges than urban students, Pappano reports. That includes limited access to Advanced Placement courses, transportation issues such as long distances from home to school or school to after-school activities, higher poverty rates, a lack of internet access and fewer opportunities for school visits from college recruiters. A Kentucky working group on rural access to higher education tackled some of those challenges by "extending the internet to isolated areas and offering Advanced Placement and college courses in high schools so that students realize they are capable of doing college work," Pappano writes.

Robert L. King, president of the state's Council on Postsecondary Education, told Pappano: “People who have grown up in our state, if they have grown up on a farm or a family connected to the coal mining industry, many of them believe erroneously that college may not be all that important . . . The natural concern that you may not be able to be competitive with kids who have grown up in suburban or larger communities.”

Pappano writes, "The belief that college is for other people, not country folk, is hard to break, said Sahar Mohammadzadeh, a high school junior and a leader of the Student Voice Team of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky education-advocacy group. Team members recently interviewed high school students around the state, including rural students who, she said, are 'being pushed down career pathways' even when they express academic interests."

Rather than enrolling them in college-prep math classes, Mohammadzadeh said, “They are putting kids who want to be accountants into welding classes. It is really powerful and heartbreaking to go around this state and see all this potential being thrown away.” Pappano has a sidebar with six stories of rural college students.

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