To Improve Completion, Remember the Countryside

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 13, 2013

At a time when the White House, economic think tanks, and major educational foundations are calling for substantial increases in the number of postsecondary degree holders, rural America stands as an undiscovered country of potential success stories.

Only about 17 percent of rural adults 25 or older have a college degree, half the percentage of urban adults, and only about 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 suburban areas. Moreover, approximately 25 percent of all public schoolchildren are found in rural school districts, representing more than 12 million potential collegegoers who should not be ignored.

Often unknowingly, education leaders and policy makers 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 policy makers to include rural representation in their college-completion conversations.

Rural students have lower college aspirations and are less likely to attend college than their urban and suburban counterparts, perhaps because, research shows, they are more likely to live in areas with no postsecondary institution, have little access to college information, and have parents who did not attend college. Unlike students in more populated areas, rural students must often face the dilemma of choosing between going to college (and leaving their families) or staying in their communities.

Meanwhile, a decline in rural educational resources has added to the problem. With struggling local economies, many rural school districts have been forced to cut staff, curriculum (arts and technical programs), and programs that focus on gifted children and those with special needs.

And although people have pointed to online and distance education as ways to expand curriculum and choice for rural students, many rural schools and homes still lack high-speed Internet access. For instance, rural households, particularly low-income ones, are less likely to have personal computers and broadband Internet, making access to online classes difficult.

Furthermore, rural poverty rates continue to surpass those of metro areas, and the correlation between income level and college completion is well documented. Contrary to popular generalizations of rural communities, many towns, particularly in the South and Southwest, have high populations of low-income, minority residents. Much like their urban peers, they face difficulty finding quality educational facilities and staff, transportation, nutritious food, and cultural centers and experiences.

Despite all this, rural areas and the rural perspective are frequently left out of national higher-education conversations. That must change. Given the role large national and regional foundations play in setting the higher-education agenda, we hope that they will reserve a "rural seat" at the table and that all educational policy makers will seek rural input.

We acknowledge that rural areas are diverse and that defining "rural" can be difficult, but this should not keep rural voices from contributing to the general higher-education policy debate, including on the crucial goals of access and completion. The issue we raise here is not merely about rural areas receiving grants for particular projects—it's about rural communities needing the same type of holistic, sustained support that is being developed and delivered for urban areas.

Educators and policy makers who primarily serve rural students and their families, from pre-kindergarten through college, must bring the challenges of rural education not to the forefront, but to equilibrium with other geographic interests. Here are some ideas worth pursuing to achieve that goal:

  • Expand research support to better understand how to deliver equitable primary and secondary education to rural students and encourage postsecondary access and success.
  • Put more experts and leaders who have backgrounds in rural education and community development in positions of authority at regional and national foundations and government agencies with educational oversight.
  • Create a national support network for postsecondary institutions, with membership based upon the percentage of rural students an institution serves. Such a network could share best practices for promoting rural-student postsecondary access and success, encourage the establishment of economic-development relationships and of academic and career pathways that would enable students to return to their home communities, and serve as a united voice for rural students and institutions to influence education policy. Two-year institutions are already represented by the Rural Community College Alliance, but no four-year college equivalent exists that we are aware of.
  • Strengthen relationships between local high schools and colleges, allowing for a smoother matriculation process to local academic or technical programs.

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.

Sarah Beasley is director of statewide academic initiatives and Neal Holly is a research and policy analyst, both at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.