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Driving to pick up my community-supported agriculture (CSA) share from the farm, I vaguely listened to a radio interview. It was a piece on who goes and gets through college. As a professor, I’ve thought a lot about that and didn’t expect to hear anything I hadn’t already heard. Then one sentence got my attention: Rural students have the lowest rate of attendance of any group, no matter how you cut the demographics, but no one notices. I thought if that’s true for rural, I bet it’s even truer for frontier.
Once home, I began googling to find the interview, the speaker’s source, and anything else on the topic. It didn’t take long for me to unearth the primary source for the statement. The nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse’s (NSC) research arm issues an annual report, National College Progression Rates based on a sample of schools across the country that vary in their geography, income, ethnicity, and auspices. While income disparities account for the greatest overall discrepancies, students from rural schools lagged suburban students and urban students in going on to college upon high school graduation, and this occurred despite their often better academic preparation. In fact, an Oregon study found that rural schools’ scores on the statewide math and reading assessment tests were more likely than their non-rural counterparts to be in the top quartile. Upon release of the NSC report, and with a bit of stimulus from the divide so evident in the 2016 presidential results, a few media sites picked up the story, but not many.
The interview I’d heard was with Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report, an educational publication. And, as I’d gathered from what I’d heard, he had made a point of following up on the rural gap. His September 2017, “The Rural-Higher Education Crisis,” written with Matt Krupnick, broadened the statistics where rural figures lag—for example, 42 percent of those between 18 and 24 are enrolled in all of higher education versus only 29 percent for rural people.
Since it’s not preparedness that accounts for the difference, what is, does it matter, what might be a response, and how might frontier populations be affected?
Having taught for years at an urban open enrollment public institution, I’ve met lots of students over the years who could only attend college if they could stay home. They may have had family responsibilities, ill parents to take care of, been ill themselves, people to support financially, their own children. Costs are a major factor in their choices, and many can only manage college if they can live at home. Frontier students, living in counties with high poverty rates have had to make the same calculations my urban students did, but urban, suburban, and even rural communities are more likely than frontier communities to have institutions of higher learning, so combining school and life may not be an option for frontier students. Or they may have to rely on online education, which puts a premium on self-motivation for completion.
Frontier students who can leave home for college almost always face the challenge of being thrust into a place overwhelming in scale compared to where they’ve spent their life. In fact, their freshman dorm and courses often have more people than their whole town or county. That can be an adjustment. How do you settle in and find your way? Who is there to help you acclimate?
Everyone new to college can easily be confused by all the options, but those from large schools are likely to have confronted a wide array of choices already. Small high schools tend to have limited choices, so how do you figure out the best things for you? Frontier communities on average have fewer college graduates than other places, so new frontier college students are more likely to be the first in their family to attend. They cannot count on their parents’ familiarity to ease their way.
As the numbers in the traditional college demographic drops, universities are beginning to pay attention to rural students. A few schools, for example Texas A&M and the University of Kentucky, have undertaken interesting efforts to address rural students’ needs, bringing them to campus as part of recruitment and familiarization, setting up special advisement for them, especially as they overlap with first-generation student populations, plugging students who have no reason to know all the education jargon into the right loop and being someone who can bail them out when they get confused.
Just as colleges are thinking through racial microaggressions, they might address rural and frontier ones, including how such areas and people are described. The way issues are presented, for example, may completely ignore frontier implications, intentionally or unintentionally, leading students to assume they aren’t important.
Frontier students are as entitled to an education as any other group, and they are too valuable to ignore. It’s up to the educational system to make sure they get every opportunity.
Dr. Deborah Popper professor emerita of geography at the City University of New York CUNY’s College of Staten Island and visiting professor at Princeton University. This article is reprinted with permission from the newsletter of the National Center for Frontier Communities, where Popper is a board member.