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Sunday, August 03, 2008

College challenge for rural kids

By Rick Dalton and John Mills • Special to The Courier-Journal
August 1, 2008

Every summer, thousands of Americans enjoy vacation getaways to rural communities with little thought about the challenges facing those who live there year round: persistent poverty, a lack of major employers and skilled workers, and a large population of underachieving high school students whose futures will be stunted because they won't go to college.

In fact, only 27 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds from rural areas enroll in college -- a number far lower than those from both urban and suburban communities. These problems will only become more significant if current trends continue. National enrollment in rural schools was up 15 percent in recent years and continues to increase, with minority and low-income students -- those who are among the lowest achieving and least likely to attend college -- fast becoming the largest demographics of students in these schools. In fact, half of all students classified as English language learners now live in rural areas.

As a rural college president and a representative of an organization that has spent the past decade striving to address challenges facing economically disadvantaged students, we believe rural educators, policymakers and families must do much more to boost college-going aspirations and prepare students for college success. Many rural communities mirror those of the inner cities -- only 21 percent of young people between the age of six and 18 have parents who have earned bachelors or graduate degrees.

As a result, many students have few adults in their lives who can speak from their own experience when encouraging young people to pursue a college education. Efforts by schools, churches and community organizations to help students prepare for college should therefore involve the students' families, so that aspirations are reinforced at home.

Many rural students who hope to attend college also need a clearer road map for getting there. The admissions and financial aid process can be an obstacle course for even the best informed students and their families, but the can't-miss deadlines and detours are even more vexing for those who don't have a personal guide.

Face-to-face conversations with college representatives are key -- yet like urban schools most rural schools lack a sufficient number of counselors to foster a college-going culture among their students. Boards of education in rural areas can address this by employing counselors who travel from school to school, and by creating partnerships that bring more college representatives to schools.

Rural students also need to become better prepared for college. Currently, only 52 percent of rural schools offer AP courses, ranking them dead last compared to urban and suburban schools. Rural pre-K-12 educators must make more of these courses available to ensure students are prepared to succeed at competitive colleges -- and to send the message that college is a worthwhile destination.

Those educators will achieve even more success in boosting aspirations by partnering with students themselves -- specifically older teens and young men and women in their early twenties who have made it to college. Through a 17-year partnership that has involved 480 pre-K-12 schools and 280 colleges, thousands of elementary, middle and secondary school students have received direct mentoring from older students who are succeeding in college. Students spend time on college campuses, learn about the importance of challenging high school courses and receive individual assistance in navigating the applications process from peers who are promoting the value of college firsthand. The process has proven to be effective. To date 96 percent of the secondary school participants who have participated in the program have gone on to college -- nearly three times the rate for rural students overall.

We can also support those students by improving the economic prospects of their communities. Rural enterprise zones, expanded broadband Internet access and secondary school curriculums that promote entrepreneurial learning will all attract investments and jobs to rural America. They will also give college graduates from rural communities an opportunity to inspire future generations by bringing their skills, knowledge and aspirations back home.

Rick Dalton is president of College for Every Student and John Mills is president of Paul Smiths College, Paul Smiths, N.Y..

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