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Do Rural Applicants Have Fair Access to Top Tier Colleges?

September 14, 2010 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Students living in some poor rural areas of the U.S. face distinct challenges when applying to top tier colleges and universities, and may be overlooked by recruiters.

Influences and Pressures on Rural Students

Angela Bakker-Lee, who grew up in rural LaCenter, Wash., was only about 10 years old when she realized she’d like to attend a top college.

“I remember thinking that I would have to plan it out to ensure that I got what I needed from my high school,” she said.

What Bakker-Lee needed, and ended up getting, was inspiration and encouragement from “several amazing teachers,” including Linda Lee Tatro. “She opened my eyes to the world outside of my small town and introduced me to things I never would have experienced otherwise,” Bakker-Lee explained.

But not all rural students are so lucky. 

“It’s not that anyone in the school discourages you necessarily, but there are few examples for you to look at and learn from, examples of others who have made that transition,” said Bakker-Lee.

Support from her teachers and a unique inner drive led Bakker-Lee to apply to several highly competitive colleges. She went on to earn a degree from Stanford University, live overseas as a Marshall Scholar and settle in New York.

Bakker-Lee’s sentiments were echoed by Peg Tyre in a piece for Newsweek on challenges faced by rural students applying to top tier colleges. Tyre focused on a student named Daniel Spangenburger who, despite having a 3.9 grade-point average and high SAT scores, was “too nervous to e-mail admissions officers or faculty members” at competitive schools.

According to Tyre, “Even when poor rural students have the grades for top colleges, their high schools often don’t know how to get them there.” But at “affluent high schools, guidance counselors often have personal relationships with both kids and admissions officers.”

Devora Shamah, a doctoral candidate in Oregon State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, discusses the plight of students in rural high schools in an article for Shamah, whose research is focused on rural youth and schools, reports that “little attention is being paid to the unique group of rural first generation students who are currently entering our community colleges and universities.”

Students in rural areas also tend to grow up around adults who have only “high school diplomas and a few years of community college,” rather than degrees from four-year colleges or universities, or graduate degrees, Shamah reports. These students lack the “familiar supports” enjoyed by many wealthier suburban or urban districts, and may feel an added “pressure to succeed from families and communities who have invested heavily in their education.”

Reaching Out to Rural Students

Even though recruiters representing certain trades and professions go out of their way to draw high school students from rural areas, many students outside of cities and suburbs are at risk of being overlooked for higher education opportunities.

Last year, the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford put out a call “for rural high school students interested in a future in the health professions to participate in a three-day summer camp,” for instance.

In an effort to level the playing field, some colleges have made special efforts to reach out to students in rural areas. Sonoma State University (SSU), for example, has teamed with the UC Office of the President “to create a ‘college going culture’ in SSU’s two most rural counties, Lake and Mendocino,” according to the SSU Web site. Campus tours are hosted for rural high school students from both counties, and presentations are given at rural high schools, among other measures. 

Background: Overlooking rural poverty

Despite being “widespread,” rural poverty is often “overshadowed by a national focus on urban poverty,” Leigh Graham writes for Citing statistics from the Economic Research Service on the impact of the recession in rural America, Graham suggests that impoverished rural children are part of a “chronic problem; one that activists, advocates and policymakers are still trying to understand. It appears to be a perennial lack of educational and job opportunities.”

“Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America,” by Patrick Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, addresses why rural residents decide to stay or seek economic and educational opportunities in cities and suburbs.

In a review of the book on Daily Yonder, Caitlin Howley expresses the daunting challenge faced by people brought up in rural environments. “Rural kids find that they must negotiate between their commitment to place and their commitment to the American ideal of individualist achievement, an ideal increasingly difficult to reach as the economic foundations of many rural communities continue to crumble,” Howley writes.

Related Topic: Rural community colleges

Many students at rural high schools enroll in rural community colleges, which face a unique set of challenges, Libby Nelson suggests for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Rural community colleges are the fastest-growing of all community colleges in the United States,” Nelson writes, but expansion has made it difficult to keep up with student demands, technological and otherwise. Rural community colleges need better access to federal grants, administrators say, to continue offering “access to higher education for all rural Americans.”

Community colleges are thriving in part because of a certain “flexibility and responsiveness to the marketplace,” according to the Portland Press Herald. Some students at rural community colleges are able to take advantage of crucial services not offered at typical four-year schools. In Maine, for example, various services, such as child care, are offered “to students from rural areas where the poverty rate is double that of urban and suburban Maine.”

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