Rural Students and the State University

Only two students from my home county went to the state's major university. It's wrong that rural students aren't encouraged to go — and it's dangerous for the state that rural communities are left out.

 

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My state has one of the best public universities in the nation, the University of North Carolina. But where I come from, hardly anybody goes.

My home is Brevard, a town of just under 7,000 in the mountains of Western North Carolina. 

Only 35 percent of high school seniors in Transylvania County plan on going on to a four-year institution after graduating. Only two of us went to UNC.

My experience isn’t an exception. The University of North Carolina has a charter mandating that 82 percent of each class must be North Carolinians, but most students come from a handful of cities.

Fifty-one percent of in-state students in UNC’s sophomore class come from five of North Carolina’s 100 counties. All these counties are urban, but, combined, make up only 30 percent of North Carolina’s total population. 

This disparity is significant, and what’s more, it’s dangerous. This is a problem for the people of North Carolina, who have a huge investment in our genuinely world-class university: If UNC doesn’t draw a proportionate number of rural students, the state is failing its people and its future. 

More importantly, the university is also depriving struggling communities of homegrown leaders — young people who can go back and make a difference in these all-too-often overlooked corners. 

This disparity is also harmful to the university. A homogenous student body diminishes campus life, and denies students a fundamental college experience — exposure to, and education from, those with different backgrounds. 

I think this disparity is also breeding complacency. 

Protecting the Way Things Are

For over 200 years, the University of North Carolina has been a force for good in my state. Sometimes it’s been the gadfly, pushing for reforms in North Carolina and across the South, and sometimes it’s been the stable institutional structure, providing support and a legitimacy to new ideas. But what it’s never been is stagnant. 

This spirit is what inspired John Ehle, author, public servant, and UNC alum to say of his alma mater, “As a state university, it is uniquely successful, and almost every phase of enlightenment and progress in the state, and to some extent in the South, can trace its birth to this small town.”

Allison Hawkins, at home.
I wrote a column for our campus paper, The Daily Tar Heel, that laid out the rural/urban disparity in the student body. The director of admissions wrote a letter to the editor. He said it wasn’t the university’s fault — that these percentages lined up with the percentage of applications they received from these areas. 

I agree. I don’t think this problem can be thrown at the feet of UNC’s admissions office. But by the same token I don’t think this problem can be laid at the office doors of high school guidance counselors or at the doorsteps of rural high schoolers themselves. 

I do think that if the disparity in applications is truly that large, we have an even bigger problem, and a problem that the university should be actively attacking rather than dodging the blame for.  

Drawing more rural students to UNC — or, for that matter, getting rural students to top schools in every state — will not be easy. Currently, rural high school students often don’t think there’s a place for them at UNC. Doing a better job attracting rural students would involve meaningful outreach socially, educationally and economically.

This outreach can take many forms. In attracting students, UNC can and should be more aggressive in promoting the university through on-site presentations in each county. Exposure to the remarkable opportunities Chapel Hill provides will inevitably spark interest in the best rural students, interest that simply does not exist today.  

This will require resources, and we all know budgets are tight. But if UNC’s football team can afford to recruit in every high school in the state, why can’t the university commit the same effort in the academic venue? What, after all, is the university’s mission?  

Dan Bennett
Brevard

Another key component must be meaningful social and economic support to rural North Carolinians, utilizing UNC’s vast intellectual and structural strengths. Currently, the university’s efforts in this realm are seriously lacking, and almost entirely confined to the counties directly adjacent to the Chapel Hill campus. 

These are the counties that in many ways are in least need of assistance, with social and economic indicators far healthier than counties further afield.  

Rural North Carolina — the east and west ends of the state — has higher rates of unemployment, higher child poverty, more citizens without health insurance, more families on public assistance, and lower education levels than urban North Carolina. This is where the university could help, if it got out of its urban shell.

If the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is to honor its self-proclaimed title of “the University of the People,” it must commit to serve all of the state’s people, not just some of them.  

Allison Hawkins is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

 

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