Rural Minnesota road with dramatic clouds at sundown
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IDEAS | TONY REHAGEN

How educational gatekeepers are overlooking rural kids

FOR YEARS, UNIVERSITIES have taken on the work of correcting the deep systemic biases that stand between minorities and opportunity in America. That’s put tremendous power in the hands of admissions officers to ensure that our campuses, to a certain extent, reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the country.

But now we’re starting to learn how those gatekeepers foresook another important segment of the population: kids from rural areas. That blindspot has created yet another American-size problem.

In the wake of Trump’s 2016 upset electoral victory, analysts, pundits, and reporters went scurrying back to their polling data in search of answers. One clue came from Pew Research exit polls showing that Hillary Clinton won college graduates by nine percentage points. Voters without a four-year diploma picked Trump by an eight-point margin. That was, by far, the largest such gap since 1980.

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The Republican Party has long had a foothold in rural America. To tighten its grip on vast swaths of “flyover country,” the party took a hard-right turn from pragmatic conservatism to more anti-science and anti-intellectual viewpoints. These anti-academic views, cultivated long before Trump ran for office, reinforce the notion that a pricey college would be of little value to a country boy or girl.

And so, rural America turned its back on higher education and with it, exposure to the multifaceted experiences of others in this nation and from around the world.

It’s not easy for urbanites and suburbanites to fathom the isolation of living in a Missouri town like mine, population 300. But we have seen the results of that isolation — untempered by higher education, people from rural areas are much more likely to vote for an isolationist, anti-immigrant, and anti-progressive agenda, crippling the national discourse, and along with it, any chance of political compromise.

Last month, the College Board unveiled a numerical rating for SAT-takers that seeks to quantify obstacles that go beyond race and ethnicity.

The Overall Disadvantage Level, or so-called “Adversity Rating,” factors in contextual data from each student’s school and neighborhood of origin, including median family income, percentage of households with food stamps, percentage of vacant housing, probability of being a victim of a crime, and percentage of adults with agriculture jobs. The new measure is based on a 2018 University of Michigan and College Board study that found that college admissions officers were more likely to admit SAT-takers from adverse environments when they were provided with this additional context.

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This tool could not come at a more crucial time for this country.

Today, 59 percent of rural high school grads head to college, slightly fewer than urban and suburban kids (62 percent and 67 percent, respectively). Yet rural students are much more likely to drop out after their first year. Overall, only 29 percent of rural residents ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college, compared to 47 percent of the same demographic from cities and suburbs. While the adversity score probably won’t be an instant fix for the disparity, at least it is a sign that higher ed wants us back.

That’s good news for a nation that desperately needs to heal its divisions.

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I grew up in the country with a limited view of the world, forged in the comfort and homogeny of my rural home. But going to college shook me out of my complacency, challenged my point of view and sent me on a different path.

WHEN I ARRIVED at the University of Missouri in 1997, I was a classic product of rural America. Like 20 percent of the US population, I’d come from a tiny town where everyone in my community looked, worshipped, voted, and thought the same way. Although I had long hair and listened to grunge music, my rebellion did not extend to my family’s politics. I bought in completely to my birthright conservatism — and not blindly. I listened to Rush Limbaugh, read George F. Will every week in my parents’ Newsweek, and grumbled along with my father about taxes and big government interference.

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Many of my friends’ grandparents, like my own grandfather, never finished high school because they were needed more at home and in the fields. My mother and father — like many, but not all of my friends’ folks — were the first generation in their families to go to college, majoring in chemistry and psychology, respectively.

When my parents returned to raise me in the same cluster of small towns in which they and their parents had been raised, their job options were limited. My dad opened a gas station; my mom taught algebra in a nearby commuter college.

Our house was crowded with books and magazines, so it seems only natural that I wanted to be a writer. I also knew I didn’t have the fortitude to be a farmer, the versatility to own a small business, or the manual skills to be craftsman or tradesman. College really was my only option.

When I arrived on Mizzou campus, I believed I was staunch in my perspective. And if I’m being honest with myself, I clung to my beliefs — first as a homesick boy’s safety blanket and later, in a sense, to defend my family.

But as I gradually immersed myself in my new surroundings, my viewpoint started to shift. I joined a so-called Freshman Interest Group (FIG), which was designed to help me get to know fellow journalism majors. The focus of our group was “cross-cultural journalism,” specifically geared to reporting and writing about other cultures. I lived in a co-ed dorm, and I befriended my neighbors — young men and women of all ethnicities, from places like Houston to Chicago to Istanbul. I eventually tagged along to my first black fraternity party. I visited my first mosque and attended my first Pride Rally. Each new impression gradually reshaped my political beliefs.

By the time I graduated four years (okay, four-and-a-half years) later, I had degrees in journalism and history. And I was ready to engage with the wider world, eventually moving to work in bigger cities like Indianapolis, Atlanta, and finally, St. Louis.

Most people who live in rural areas reside in the state of their birth. I eventually returned to be closer to family. But, at least temporarily, college was my escape from that cycle.

TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO, my ticket to Mizzou was punched by multiple conductors in an effort to break down economic and demographic barriers. But that system is now failing.

In recent years, state colleges and universities have been scaling back efforts to recruit students from the more remote areas of their states. Recruiters don’t have time to make the hours-long drive just to speak to a senior class of 100 students — never mind my graduating class of 26. Many believe they can reach rural kids online, but even today, one-fourth of the population in rural areas lacks access to high-speed broadband. The lack of connectivity is two-way, further isolating the web-less ruralites from the worldwide web of ideas and information while at the same time allowing recruiters to lump their high schoolers into a homogenous stack of outlanders, who probably wouldn’t be interested in college.

Another reason higher ed has abandoned rural America is because we kids simply don’t have the money to pay for an education. The opportunities I took advantage of are slipping away as the GOP, empowered by divisive rhetoric, continues to divert resources from education. In May, Trump asked Congress to redirect $1.9 billion from a Pell Grant Program surplus to other projects like NASA, in addition to $2 billion he had already sought to syphon off the subsidy fund. Kids whose parents make less than $50,000, like mine did, would be forced to get private loans and take on the crushing debt that comes with them.

In search of new revenue sources, colleges, particularly in the Midwest, have focused on recruiting international students who usually pay full freight — often more than double the tuition in-state residents pay. By 2018, that meant more than one million foreign students enrolled in US colleges and universities to the tune of $39 billion in revenue.

(The current administration’s stricter view on immigration has cut into that trend, but as these schools look to replace that tuition money, they’ll continue to target the higher incomes of urban and suburban families over that of rural households.)

ISOLATED FROM THE fruits of academia, many rural would-be undergrads have developed a distorted view of higher eduction. They see headlines of crippling education debt, a $1.5 trillion crisis hanging over 44 million borrowers across the US, and prefer to stay closer to home and settle for lower overall wages in lieu of the long gamble of a college diploma.

They’re buying a bill of goods — that education is a liberal, elitist luxury which offers few tangible benefits.

This perception is reinforced by many factors. Some rural students who do make it to college often have a difficult time adjusting. Academically, they start behind — smaller high schools offer far fewer AP courses that prepay in college credit (mine didn’t offer any). My classes were intimate and this intensive care might actually provide a better high school education, but the coddling can also set a kid up for culture shock when he or she gets to a huge public university. The faceless bureaucracy of a public institution like Mizzou and crowded auditorium-sized classes are intimidating.

These days, many universities have programs to help low-income minority students. Not so much for rural students. All of this contributes to the reason that rural students are less likely to return for their second year than suburban and urban kids.

Many rural Americans also have largely bought into the notion, built on right-wing anti-intellectualism, that universities are hatcheries for liberalism, socialism, and any other -ism that might pose a threat to the status quo. According to Pew, only 71 percent of rural white men said they believed college provided necessary skills and education, compared to 82 percent of urban and 84 percent of suburban white males.

And increasingly, universities themselves are playing into this narrative. There’s an extreme intolerance for any perceived prejudice. Students are now expected to use a highly edited and careful language that, if not learned quickly, can isolate unwitting students who haven’t yet been indoctrinated. Course materials are rife with trigger warnings alerting wary students to anything that might be traumatic or controversial, suggesting that the expression of ideas is dangerous. The proliferation of safe spaces offers young minds a place to hide from opinions, ideas, and perspectives that run counter to their own; and the outright forbidding of outside speakers and sources that might disturb the tranquility of campus stifles constructive debate.

In that sense, perhaps, higher ed actually is becoming a bastion of liberal thinking, fearful of other views, and therefore, a place where meaningful debate is impossible. In this environment, an 18-year-old from rural Missouri could easily get lost.

OF ALL THE valuable gifts higher ed gave this small town guy, the most important was the chance to work, live, and play alongside people from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and economic strata. College ultimately taught me — a white man born raised as a staunch Republican — about empathy and the willingness to consider alternative viewpoints.

The Overall Disadvantage Level is probably not a cure-all. Critics are already arguing that factors like free lunch rate, parental education level, and housing values don’t necessarily explain why a student did poorly on the SAT, a standardized test that has long been decried as racially and economically biased.

Even the lead author of the study upon which the score is based, Michael Bastedo, a professor of public higher education at the University of Michigan, acknowledges the limits of the score.

“We need to know more,” he says. “As more colleges adopt this, we need to see if it’s actually having an effect. Are there more low-income students? More rural students? And what are schools doing with the data. Some say it’s helpful, others say they don’t look at it.”

But the College Board defends its new tool, saying that it could increase the likelihood of admission for poor students by as much as 25 percent — and rural communities are included in that equation. The organization’s president and CEO, David Coleman, told NPR as much in May: “I think you’re going to see a lot of rural white students picked up here, who have never been seen without a generalized context because admissions officers never visit their school.”

I certainly hope so. I grew up with a limited view of the world, and that didn’t change the moment I walked onto the quad at the Mizzou. But that changed over time. Some friends from back home, compatriots who broke out and attended college, joked that I’d become a sort of traitor for abandoning my conservative upbringing for a more liberal worldview. But this is not about party affiliation. After all, college did little to dislodge my parents’ conservatism. Our experiences were different. And that’s the point — we’d opened ourselves to the experience.

At the moment in our lives when we were just learning to think for ourselves, we were forced — at least internally — to defend and argue our old positions in light of new data and observations.

College isn’t where we learned to think, but rather we learned how to take our thoughts and engage in the open marketplace of ideas. We learned to talk to each other, rather than isolate ourselves — and our politics — from the larger world.