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Ensuring Rural Students Succeed

Raised in rural central Illinois, my adjustment from rurality to a university campus packed with national and international diversity was eye-opening. As I acclimated to my alma mater, I noticed some of my early collegiate experiences differed from my suburban and urban classmates. The cosmopolitan environment subliminally told me my ruralness was inadequate compared to my non-rural peers, thus sparking my interest in how individuals from rural America transition and succeed in higher education.

The 2010 Census classified 97 percent of the United States’ landmass as “rural,” though home to only 19.3 percent of the population or roughly 60 million Americans. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, rural public schools educate 18 percent of our nation’s youth. Of that percentage, a mere 29 percent between the ages of 18 to 24 are presently enrolled in any form of higher education, compared to nearly 48 percent from non-rural areas. Furthermore, the National Student Clearinghouse identified that rural students are more susceptible to unenrollment pressures between their freshmen and sophomore year compared to urban and suburban counterparts.

Despite rural America’s geographic, ethnic, and racial diversity, rural students attending higher education institutions exhibit some commonalities. A few similarities rural students exhibit are heightened anxiety, lower retention rates, greater economic obstacles, social alienation, and identity conflicts compared to more urban classmates. While we have recently seen a flood of literature highlighting the distinct struggles rural students may encounter, I wish to further our discussions by outlining solutions toward mending concerns to ensure rural student succeed in higher education.

 On-campus resources

 College students notably underutilize on-campus resources, such as career services, and rural students are not breaking this trend because of limited previous exposure. As a result, financial burdens are a leading concern for rural individuals when applying to and while enrolled in higher education programs. Joell Erchul, a sophomore at Michigan Technological University and a northern Wisconsin native, felt tension when applying to college without “any college fund and my parents are both unemployed” she said. Textbooks, lab expenses, club fees, and other traditional college expenditures become increasingly unaffordable for rural students, says Andrew Koricich, an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Appalachian State University. Koricih recommends colleges subsidize academic materials for rural students facing economic woes. However, solely presenting financial assistance through on-campus resources may not be sufficient as rural students express unfamiliarity navigating higher education fiscal policies. Thus, Koricih advises institutions should aim to build financial savviness among rural students by establishing financial advising sessions targeting rural populations.

However, gaining rural students’ participation can be an endeavor. Jennifer Sherman, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Washington State University, reports in her book Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty Morality, and Family in Rural America that rural individuals can be reluctant toward requesting assistance and are often suspicious of institutional support. As a trust building tool, Associate Professor of Business at Colorado Mesa University, Patrick Schutz, proposes specially supporting rural students with extended orientations or peer mentor programs while stressing their serviceability.

Previous academic training also causes uneasiness for alumni of rural public schools who statistically enter higher education with less academic readiness compared to their nonrural peers. Rural public schools often reside in regions with lower tax bases than compared to urban and suburban areas.  Consequently, rural public schools are underserved and operate with limited resources. This inequality compared to non-rural schools equals to fewer AP courses, difficulty attracting top educators, and a widening achievement gap. In order to catch up, skilled counselors and peer mentors can guide struggling students while hopefully making a dent in rural retention rates.

It takes a community

Research shows rural freshman and sophomore students endure significant identity confrontations, community changes, and express feelings of isolation at amplified levels compared to suburban and urban classmates. Edna McCulloh, Dean of Academic Services at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, believes higher education institutions must recognize the unique role of parents within the lives of rural students. McCulloh states parents of rural students are the key influencers in whether or not a rural student decides to pursue higher education and where.

Tori Streich, a senior at the University of Central Arkansas and originally from northeastern Iowa, had to overcome her parents’ expectations. “My father became successful without a college degree and over twenty years of experience, which made my parents think college wasn’t important,” says Streich. The expectations of parents can impact any student’s education. However, a 2012 study found that when rural parents were compared to urban parents, they displayed lower expectations for their children’s higher education pursuits. Subsequently, their children unconsciously held lower expectations of themselves, resulting in rural students facing inner turmoil as they balance such low expectations with their aspirations to pursue higher education.

Higher education institutions can do little to shape the families of their students, however, they can change their engagement strategies in hopes of increasing retention rates. Keeping in mind the heightened and complex role parents or guardians of rural students play, colleges may need to include parents and guardians in their child’s college experience more so than urban or suburban peers. By including parents and guardians in a student’s progress, higher education institutions can help guide parents to construct positive relationships and expectations for their children surrounding higher education. Without such, students can become unbalanced between their home and school lives, increasing their feelings of isolation.

Helping rural students keep strong home ties is the first step to building them a robust support community. The second involves aiding rural students in developing a sense of community among peers. Through campus involvement, an organic support system can develop to avoid feeling lost when arriving on a big campus, one that is often bigger than the communities rural students leave behind. Olivia Healy, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and also from northern Wisconsin, was able to avoid isolation by becoming “involved in multiple organizations on campus, including Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and our school’s marching band. Being an employee on campus has also helped me to become connected with more employees that come from different backgrounds and organizations.”

Identity struggles

Joel Hektner, Professor of Human Development and Family Science at North Dakota State University, found that due to the lack of job opportunities in rural communities, rural students often develop internal struggles dissimilar to those of urbanites or suburbanites. Whether directly or indirectly, rural students feel as if society and their campus tell them that in order to secure a profitable and successful future, they must leave behind their rural communities because of those locations’ perceived lack of opportunity. In Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, authors Patrick J. Carr, Associate Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, and Maria J. Kerfalas, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Saint Joseph’s University, documented how the most academically talented youth in rural Iowa seeking college admission became guilt-ridden for “abandoning” their former rural communities in exchange for scholastic pursuits.

While wrestling with feelings of desertion, many rural students might also feel torn between settling in their former rural communities or moving ahead with their new college life as noted by Kathleen Budge, Professor of Curriculum, Instruction, and Foundational Studies at Boise State University. Whereas suburban and urban students can anticipate returning to their previous communities after graduation, this is not the case of rural students. As a result, they struggle early in college picturing where their future exists.

Identity tensions further develop as rural students’ interactions with their non-rural peers escalate. After hearing of urban and suburban peers’ wider national and international exposure, rural students often feel forgotten in the larger narrative on campus. “Somewhere along the way, rural students and adults alike seem to have learned that to be rural is to be sub-par, that the condition of living in a rural locale creates deficiencies of various kinds—an educational deficiency in particular,” states Paul Theobald, a rural historian, and Kathy Wood, Program Specialist with the WNY Rural Area Health Education Center, in Rural Education for the Twenty-First Century: Identity, Place, and Community in a Globalizing World.

Benjamin Brockinton, a senior at the University of Central Arkansas from central Arkansas, overcame rural stereotypes and felt he had “been judged off and on by certain members of higher education for the last few years.” Despite the judgment, Brockinton found ways to deflect and stated, “I don’t let it bother me. I move forward and perform well.” All underlining the sensitivity college counselors and student affair administrators require when working with rural students to not ostracize them.

As we look toward the future of our nation and higher education, we must ensure the success of rural students. Rural communities are affected by our historical biases and disregard. In an era of inclusion, we risk depriving campuses of a crucial element in our national diversity, thus silencing the voice of millions of rural Americans. Only by advocating for rural students’ inclusion will we build a stronger future together.

Allen Kenneth Schaidle serves as an educational consultant.

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