On a late-autumn Sunday, a bus pulled out of El Paso at 3 a.m. carrying 52 sleepy students and parents from western Texas and New Mexico. A few had already driven several hours to get to El Paso. The bus arrived at Texas A&M 12 hours later, in time for a walking tour and dinner. After “Aggieland” information sessions, including a student panel and classroom visits, a stop at the Bonfire Memorial and an all-night drive, they arrived back in El Paso at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
“People don’t realize that Texas is a huge state,” said Scott McDonald, director of admissions at Texas A&M who came up with the idea of bus trips upon realizing that students from remote areas would not visit on their own. “Sometimes colleges say, ‘We don’t get many of those students; it’s not worth our time.’ ” He disagrees. Rural students bring “a unique perspective” to campus, he said. “In terms of diversity, geography is just as important as racial and ethnic.”
Mr. McDonald proved prescient. 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.
“All of a sudden, rural is on everyone’s mind,” said Kai A. Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State, adding that November’s vote amplified the plight of people who had heretofore been “pretty systematically ignored, dismissed or passed over.” That’s partly because, while the federal government labels 72 percent of the nation’s land area “rural,” it is home to only 14 percent of the population, and rural schools educate just 18 percent of the nation’s public school students. Locales designated as rural have higher poverty rates and lower education levels than those labeled urban, suburban or town.
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, said Adam Sapp, admissions director at Pomona College, have “a different understanding of complicated political and social issues,” offering “one more lens through which to see a problem.”
Drexel University College of Medicine even includes rural students among those served through its diversity office. Clemson University last fall began offering them special scholarships through its Emerging Scholars Program. And nonprofit organizations that once focused on urban dwellers are now sending counselors into remote high schools to guide them in the application process.
These students face specific challenges. They attend schools so small that some teachers double as guidance counselors and bus drivers. In western Texas, the sports teams of Alpine High School can travel five hours each way to face opponents. In one removed Kentucky town, Irvine, students gather in a McDonald’s parking lot for internet access, when it’s working. Rural schools also often have less access to Advanced Placement courses.
There’s an achievement paradox here, too: 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.
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.
The simple question — What is college for? — gets more complicated depending on where you ask it. Rural America has been slow to see the net value in higher education. For regions in pain, do university degrees help?
Higher education is a fraught subject in rural communities. “It is not simply deciding to get a college degree,” Dr. Schafft said, “but deciding you will probably not be able to come back.”
In regions suffering economically — in four years, Kentucky has lost 10,000 coal jobs paying $60,000 to $70,000 a year — residents are grappling with the loss of good unskilled jobs. “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,” said Robert L. King, president of the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education. An educated work force, he said, is needed to attract new industry.
With that goal in mind, a Kentucky working group…