Do Rural’s Best and Brightest Back Away?

A new study shows that top rural high school students are far less likely to enroll at the nation's most prestigious colleges. Are they left out or just less enticed?

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A new study by two scholars at the University of Michigan has found that top students from rural high schools were 2.5 times less likely to enroll in the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities than were their urban and suburban counterparts.

Though most universities have taken steps to diversify student populations – notably with special scholarships for low-income applicants – Julie Posselt and Matthew A. Holsapple, Ph.D. candidates in Postsecondary Education, wrote that “large disparities exist” at the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. In “The Best in the Country?”, Posselt and Holsapple write that the gap in prestigious postsecondary schooling between urban and suburban high school grads and their rural peers represents “an enduring dimension of inequality in education.”

The researchers drew their findings from the Educational Longitudinal Survey (2002) to determine students’ probability of enrollment in U.S. News and World Report’s (USN) 50 top universities and 50 top liberal arts colleges.

“Even when holding academic achievement, demographic factors and financial aid constant,” they wrote, “rural students are as much as 2.5 times less likely to enroll in a USN-ranked institution.”

Holsapple and Posselt/”The Best in the Country?”

Michigan researchers found that top urban and rural students of similar socioeconomic status followed similar patterns in enrollment in two-year (blue lines) and most four-year (red lines) colleges. But urban students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds were far more likely to enroll in prestigious colleges and universities. (Note the green lines: rural students represented on the left, urban students at right.)

Princeton is a community of learning that is enriched by the wide variety of experiences and perspectives of its students, faculty and staff.”

Yale prides itself on its diversity,”

These universities currently rank #2 and #3 in the nation, according to the widely-cited (if not universally accepted) assessment from U.S. News and World Report.

Williams College, which U.S. News ranked as the nation’s top liberal arts college, touts its “steps” toward diversity; at Williams, the concept of a diverse student body “has primarily taken the form of men and women from all segments of American society — ethnic, racial, and socio-economic — and increasingly also from countries beyond the United States.”

Yet neither Williams nor Yale nor Princeton cites rurality/urbanity as a component of efforts to diversify.

The University of Michigan scholars emphasize that college enrollment combines structural features over which students have little control (like distance, cost, and — ultimately — admission) with aspects of personal choice. The present study, they write, can’t determine which of these elements (or what combination of the two) may account for rural students’ lower rates of enrollment at prestigious schools.

Posselt and Holsapple are now studying whether rural, suburban and urban students differ in their rates of application to top colleges and universities. They write that “Rural students may not be as sensitive to the allure of rankings.”

But there may be other factors that dissuade rural high school graduates from applying to the nation’s most prestigious schools, as well as biases that work against them at top colleges.

Several earlier studies assumed that rural youth were more home-bound than suburbanites and urbanites, thus less willing to apply to distant institutions. For the most part, however, researchers have found rural students no less willing to move either for work or for higher education. One recent study, in fact, found that urban students were less inclined to move for college. Also, whereas rural dwellers were initially more enthusiastic about online education than urban or suburban students, that gap is closing.

Peter Schmidt reported on the Michigan study in the Chronicle on Higher Education April 30, and his article fomented some heart-pounding replies.

“As a high school physics teacher in a somewhat less-than-affluent school,” wrote one reader, “I routinely discouraged many of my students from going to the Ivy League, or similar schools. I had no doubt that many of them were capable, but I explained to the parents that there was definitely a ‘snob factor’ to be considered. These kids would NEVER fit in at such a place and would be the target of unceasing condescension.”

“Colleges need to recruit teachers to recruit students,” wrote a Princeton graduate, who moved to rural South Georgia to teach. “If no one familiarizes the top high-schoolers with the experience of the top schools, they won’t apply. Takes a lot of courage for a kid from a small Georgia town without a McDonald’s even to want to apply to some out-of-state school.”

Another Chronicle reader wrote, “It was the polite but clueless contempt for my way of life that made me uncomfortable at Yale. Classmates and faculty who invested great effort in the study of third world societies knew nothing about America. I put up with it because the resources and contacts made available to students there were superb.”

Holsapple and Posselt/”The Best in the Country?”
University of Michigan scholars compared the college enrollments of students from geographically different high schools. Of the top urban students, 7.56% enrolled in prestigious colleges and universities; 3.37% percent of top rural students enrolled in such schools.

The ticklish subject of status ratchets up to something more like pain with the prospects of rural youth on the line. Highly emotional responses to the Michigan researchers’ work indicate that they’re on to a significant topic, one with potential to disclose much more about the bigotries of  Americans, rural and urban, and the real life chances or penalities that those sensibilities may have power to incur.


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