Thursday, December 13, 2018

Colleges and universities (including elite ones) paying more attention (in a good way) to rural students

National Public Radio ran a lengthy feature yesterday on rural college students as part of its series, the Changing Face of College.  This piece is chock full of sensitivity to the rural student experience, and it features profiles of students who hail from a range of rural-ish places in Michigan, from the Upper Peninsula to not-that-far from Ann Arbor and close-to Holland, in the western part of the state.

The title of the piece by Alissa Nadworny is "'Going to Office Hours is Terrifying' And Other Tales of Rural Students in College."  Here is the post I wrote for Working Class Whites and the Law, which features some excepts from the story as well as other recent media coverage of socioeconomic class diversity in higher ed.  In this post for Legal Ruralism, I want to focus more on "rural" and less on "working class white" generally, though it seems that the rural students in the Nadworny feature are all white (and seemingly all working-class white). 

The story (as well as my WCW post about it) focuses in part on the culture shock rural students experience when they go to large, urban-ish campuses. The following quote from Alexandra Rammacher of Charlotte, Michigan, population 9,074, highlights the lack of anonymity of rural places in contrast to the the 46,000-student Ann Arbor campus:
There were so many people!
Every day you would see a face you had never seen before — many faces you had never seen before.  I was used to seeing a group of people I already knew. It was just a huge there-are-people-in-the-world revelation.
Keep in mind that her hometown Charlotte, as the crow flies, is not that far from Ann Arbor.  Here is an excerpt regarding Kendra Beaudoin of Lake Linden, population 993, in the storied Upper Peninsula, a 10-hour drive from Ann Arbor:
Beaudoin is the daughter of a single mother, and she helped raise her four younger siblings. Back home, she didn't know a lot of people with a bachelor's degree; fewer than 1 in 5 rural adults aged 25 and older have them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.  
(Here's a really old post on the extent to which people in my home town had college degrees.)
At Michigan, Beaudoin is majoring in biopsychology, cognition and neural science and has co-founded a club for first-generation students to give one another moral support and advice. 
"I'm still intimidated by professors. Going to office hours is terrifying," she says. "There were definitely moments when I was like, 'I'm only going here to fill a diversity quota and I don't really belong here and everybody else is so much smarter than me.' "
* * *  
Other obstacles are more mundane. Take crosswalks. "Those don't exist where I lived," Beaudoin says. She stops and waits for the light to change while other pedestrians brush past her. When her phone broke, leaving her without one for several months, she used a paper map to find her way around campus. She still has trouble figuring out the bus system. Yet, as someone from a rural place where self-sufficiency is valued, "The idea of going to someone and asking how this works ... it was almost like I felt bad for not knowing."
Beaudoin also offers a comment that goes to students' different attitudes stemming from class:
It's almost like a sense of entitlement.  Some students, they're comfortable, they're relaxed, they're OK with talking back to the teachers or arguing a grade.
Speaking of entitlement, the story also comments on the shock to some students of seeing others wearing designer labels.  A student from Au Gres, Michigan, population 889, observes:
Everybody else has got the coin that I don't have. Those Canada Goose jackets? You're kidding.  I'm walking down the road and I see people with Gucci or Versace.
Canada Goose parkas can cost up to $1500.  (Here's a recent story out of England about a high school that banned Canada Goose coats by way of "poverty proofing" the school and making it less alienating for students whose families cannot afford ht pricey jackets).

NPR reports that some colleges and universities are doing more to attract and support rural students qua rural students--because they are rural and not merely working-class white.  (Note the contrast between this news and recent rhetoric regarding the Harvard affirmative action litigation, which implied that rural students don't represent diversity or bring perspectives that would be valuable in higher education).  Nadworny quotes Naomi Norman, associate vice president for instruction at the University of Georgia, which recently launched a program to provide scholarships and mentors to support rural students:
We never really came to terms with the fact that they needed extra support.
The story continues by noting what the the University of Georgia is on the vanguard of four-year institutions that is providing financial and academic support to rural students, just as they do urban ones. 
The Georgia program came about after a task force found that rural students have higher dropout rates than their classmates and couldn't afford the $1,500 fee for the existing summer program for incoming freshmen. The University of North Carolina system plans to increase rural enrollment by 11 percent by 2021, and several Pennsylvania universities and colleges have started scholarships for students from rural Schuylkill County, a onetime coal-producing area.
It is exciting to see colleges and universities, both small and large, public and private, setting rural-specific goals like these.  Most such initiatives are recent.  Kent Trachte, president of Lycoming College, where 20% of students hail from rural Pennsylvania, says: 
It's fair to say that until fairly recently, we just took our rural students for granted.           
That's an interesting way of expressing things for a few reasons, not least because it draws attention to the fact that enrollment of rural students has been declining nationally. 
Lycoming College recently received "the second half of a $1 million grant to go toward scholarships for residents of two such counties."

Nadworny notes that the University of Michigan is now being intentional about extending to more rural students the range of academic and financial support it provides to others in the first-generation category.  When its Kessler Presidential Scholarship Program was founded a decade ago, 90% of participants came from nearby Detroit and other urban areas, but "nearly a third of this year's 36 Kessler Scholars are from rural places."

Michigan is adding scholarships and academic support for as many as 20 students from the Upper Peninsula next fall, and Cornell University is launching its own program, modeled on Michigan's.

The NPR story also touches, importantly, on the (in)visibility of the "rural" student and the optics of diversity:
One challenge faculty and staff face in helping rural students: They often don't realize that rural students, who are predominantly white, need the extra help. "If you are an instructor in a class looking out, you cannot identify [a first-generation rural student] in the way you might say, 'Well, I have an African-American student in this class,' or, 'I have a student of Muslim identity in this class.' So we start there," Gibson says. "What the student is experiencing in a classroom situation or in a dorm situation may or may not be visible."
I wrote some about that here and here.

One really exciting aspect of this piece is that it suggests that some universities are beginning to see  rural as a desirable characteristic because it broadens political diversity, even as it also (at least partly) re-affirms stereotypes of rural as conservative and Republican. 

Check out this quote from a University of Michigan student from rural (or at least exurban) Louisiana:
They expect a yee-haw.  They expect me to be some extreme bigot.
The student from Au Gres, Michigan, one of 55 students in his high school class, notes that people in Ann Arbor often assume he is "Republican. And poor. And a farmer."

Another rural University of Michigan student states:
It's right that a lot of people from rural towns are conservative, and that's not me so I don't love going home and butting heads with people who never leave and never open themselves up to something different. They're just going to stay on the same farm their whole life with the same values and do the same thing. I'm just trying to experience everything.
And here is an excerpt that suggests appreciation for what rural students bring to the broader discourse, especially in this extremely polarized political moment:
"If we want to increase conversations across party lines and ideologies, we have to be exposed to one another," says Sonja Ardoin, assistant professor for student affairs administration at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and a onetime rural student herself.
Kent Trachte of Lycoming College notes, in a similar vein,
We in higher education had better be thinking about how do we bring together young people from these different backgrounds to a place where they can hopefully have civil discourse.
Again, contrast that constructive view with the scoffing at rural perspectives we saw in commentary about the trial over Harvard's affirmative action program this fall.

And all of this leads me to the big question I've been asking for several years:  What are scholars doing to ensure that the sorts of knowledge and cultural capital that rural students bring to college are appreciated?  Are we conveying to our rural students (however defined?) that they are valued?  (A very provocative piece of scholarship related to that question is here).  Are we doing what it takes to retain them in higher education?

These questions are near to my heart (and mind) right now because I've just finished teaching a seminar to first-gen, first-year (formerly freshman) students at UC Davis--undergrads, not law students.  I created the seminar, called "The First-Gen Experience in Scholarly and Popular Literature," and in it, my students reflected on and told their own stories of how they got to college.  Who were the key mentors?  What were the primary obstacles? They also reflected on the support they need to succeed at UC Davis.  Almost all of the students were urban, but a few had some claim to knowing something about rurality.  One was from Sonoma, an example of rural gentrification, and one was from Stockton, in the great Central Valley.  Some of the students' parents had worked as agricultural laborers.   By and large, the students weren't rural--and they also were not white, but I felt like a lot of the obstacles they are facing cross color lines and geographic lines.

All of this takes me back to what I wrote here.  Don't we want the greatest talent from all of America, rural or urban, whatever skin color, in our best colleges?  Don't we want--indeed, need--to develop it for the common good?

For more posts on rural students and higher education, check out the ones here (2008, the first year of this blog!, which shows how long this issue has been on my mind), here (2017), here (2010), here (suggesting elite admissions bias against rural students, 2013), or here (back to 2008) or just search Legal Ruralism for "college degree."

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