President Barack Obama regularly sounds the alarm that the United States must find ways to substantially increase our number of postsecondary graduates to remain a viable economic force internationally. Most influential education foundations and economic think tanks agree.
In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sarah Beasley, director of statewide academic initiatives, and Neal Holly, research and policy analyst, both at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, pointed out that the president's efforts and those of others frequently ignore a large population of potential degree holders: millions of high school graduates in rural America who do not get the opportunity to attend college. And without some concerted effort from educators — as I was lucky to enjoy as a teenager attending schools for migrant workers — modern rural students will still get left behind.
The numbers Beasley and Holly found are sobering. Only about 17 percent of rural adults 25 or older graduate from college, which is half the percentage of urban adults. Only 31 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in rural areas were enrolled in higher education in 2009, compared with about 46 percent in urban areas and 42 percent in suburbia.
Now for the potential good news: About 25 percent of the nation's public schoolchildren attend school in rural districts. They represent more than 12 million potential college-goers. The bad news is that this 12 million receive hardly any attention from the outside. In my youth, for example, historically black colleges were the only avenue for rural blacks. But even that recruitment dynamic has changed with integration and shifting black population patterns.
"Often unknowingly," Beasley and Holly write, "education leaders and policymakers with the most financial and political leverage advocate policies and reforms that may marginalize students and educational institutions beyond the boundaries of urban centers, or at least they fail to consider the special challenges faced by rural students. This concentration on metropolitan areas is certainly understandable given the large number of people without degrees there, but we urge foundations and policymakers to include rural representation in their college-completion conversations."
As education professionals in West Virginia, the authors witness problems in rural America close-up, and they understand the long-term implications. Students in the countryside face many obstacles to attending college, some of them daunting.
Unlike their city and suburban counterparts, rural students are less likely to seriously dream of attending college. Many have parents and other relatives who are not degree holders, meaning they lack role models to motivate them to study beyond high school. Millions of these students live in areas that do not have colleges, hindering both access to information and classes. And the authors suggest that rural students, more than their city peers, struggle between going away to college or staying in their communities with their families and friends.
And let us face some ugly realities. Compared to their suburban and urban counterparts, high numbers of rural high school graduates are not prepared for college-level work. Why? The answers are complex, but some factors are worth noting. The authors state, for example, that to remain financially afloat, many rural communities trim school budgets ahead of other divisions. They cut staff, curriculum and programs that serve special-needs and gifted children. Arts and technical programs often are hit especially hard.
And then there is poverty. Research long has shown that rural poverty rates are consistently higher than those of densely populated areas, and the correlation between income levels and college completion is beyond rational dispute. The authors contend that despite the claims of many politicians, rural areas, particularly in the South and Southwest, have large populations of poor minority residents where college attendance is exception rather than the norm.
These students face the same problems their urban peers face — but without much relief. They have trouble finding viable learning facilities and competent staff, reliable transportation, nutritious food and centers of culture. The neglect of policymakers for rural schoolchildren is nothing less than self-destruction that goes against the nation's stated goal of educational opportunity for all who desire it.
As Beasley and Holly write, "If rural areas and rural-serving institutions are not included in the national drive toward greater academic success and college completion, then we are not only failing a significant segment of our student population, we are forgoing opportunities to ensure academic equity and meet national postsecondary goals."