The Long Road to College from Rural America

By — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Youth who grow up in a rural community face unique challenges as they think about and head toward college. Rural communities have far more adults with high school diplomas and a few years of community college than adults who have completed 4-year degrees or graduate degrees. The 2000 Census reported that 19.5 % of rural adults hold a bachelor's degree or higher as compared to 28.8 % of adults in urban areas. In our rapidly changing economy, a college education is increasingly important to economic security. Fortunately, recent studies have shown that rural youth of today are aspiring to postsecondary education including 4-year degrees, meaning many will be first generation college students. While a fair amount of attention has been paid to minority first generation college students, and a small number of researchers are examining the experiences of first generation white students, little attention is being paid to the unique group of rural first generation students who are currently entering our community colleges and universities.

The Rural Pathway to Higher Education is Unique

In general, rural youth grow up in small communities with small schools. They feel intimately at home in a place where they know many people, where there is little traffic and even less crime, and where their schools provide ample opportunity for individual attention.
As first generation students, these youth are encountering new experiences that are unfamiliar to their parents and community members. From taking SAT and ACT entrance exams through college graduation, these youth are treading on new ground without familiar supports. Students may also feel an additional pressure to succeed from families and communities who have invested heavily in their education.
  • College often means a large campus with thousands of students and a new sense of anonymity.
  • Colleges are often located closer to urban areas and in places with dramatically different lifestyles.
  • Moving quite far from home can be difficult for rural youth who feel obligated to help their family or contribute to farm work.  
  • Rural youth are also moving to a place where fewer strangers can be trusted. Parents worry whether their kids will be careful with their wallets and laptops, will learn where it is and is not safe at night, and will find good friends.
  • Once at college, rural youth meet and share classes with students who grew up in the suburbs and cities.
  • Finding common ground can be hard. Stereotypes of rural people as "bumpkins," "hillbillies," or "cowboys" may present themselves, forcing these youth to either hide their roots or prove themselves in and out of the classroom.
  • Rural youth generally have less access to advanced coursework, especially calculus and advanced placement classes, leaving them with more college classes to take in order to complete their degrees.

The Special Case of Community College

Many rural youth choose to begin their college education at a community college. Community colleges are more affordable and have smaller campuses and class sizes. Here, youth can adjust to campus life, easily access their advisors and instructors, and live closer to home than if they had chosen a 4-year school. Most community colleges, however, do not have campus housing. These campuses were designed for students living at home or students returning to their education later in life. Unlike a college with dorms and meal plans where students just show up with clothes and computers, youth attending a community college are making an array of adult decisions including renting apartments, furnishing those apartments, dealing with utilities, and finding transportation to and from campus. These youth may need to work harder to find friends, as they are not living in a dorm with other students taking similar classes. Community colleges may be the perfect choice for some youth, but may derail other youth who are not ready to engage in the required adult decisions.
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