Why are so few rural students going to college? "The reasons for this are as myriad as they are consequential, affecting everything from regional economic competitiveness to widening political division," Jon Marcus and Matt Krupnick report for The Atlantic and The Hechinger Report.
It isn't that the students aren't academically prepared. Rural students score higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than their urban and suburban counterparts, and they're more likely to graduate high school too.
Because fewer than one in five people in rural areas have a college degree, students may lack role models who could encourage them to attend. Lack of high-speed internet can keep kids from being able to experience the world outside of rural areas and see the professional possibilities that college would offer. Widespread mental-health issues, poverty and opioid addiction can also discourage students from going to college. Some rural areas can't attract enough teachers to offer college-prep classes. And because of culture shock, rural students are more likely to drop out of college.
Some students (and their families) may believe it's still possible to make a good living from rural jobs like farming, mining and logging that don't require degrees, says Charles Fluharty, the president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa. But those sorts of jobs are much more scarce in modern times, which can cause rural residents to feel hopeless and not engage in preparing for college. "A third of rural whites, and 40 percent of rural white men, are resigned to believing that their children will grow up with a lower standard of living than they did, a far higher proportion than people who live in cities (23 percent) or suburbs (28 percent), a survey by the Pew Research Center found," The Atlantic reports. And only 71 percent of rural white men think that higher education is necessary, compared with 82 percent of urban and 84 percent of suburban white men.
Fluharty told The Atlantic that this is more a cultural phenomenon than an educational phenomenon, and that encouraging a rural student to go to college instead of following in their parents' footsteps is like "suggesting that that child should not do what I have done, should not be where I have been, should not value all that I have raised them to honor, whether that’s going to the mill or turning on the tractor at 6 a.m."
Jeff Hawkins, the executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which works to encourage students in that state’s coal-mining southeast corner to go on to college, told The Atlantic that understanding and addressing this "is critical to our future, not just for employment but for civil discourse and kids feeling like they can contribute and achieve and not feeling lost and ignored."
"There are practical reasons to raise rural college-going rates. Economies in states including Iowa are shifting toward such industries as information technology, wind energy, and healthcare, which require postsecondary educations," The Atlantic reports.