Black, rural and impoverished: Are colleges ignoring these students?

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Darris R. Means is an assistant professor in the University of Georgia College of Education. In the essay below, he examines the lack of outreach by colleges to rural youth, particularly black students.

Rural students are underrepresented at many colleges. The 2014 report, "The Effects of Rurality on College Access and Choice," found students in rural areas were less likely than urban peers to enroll in higher education. When rural students go to college, they are also less likely to attend a four-year school, a private campus or a selective one.

I once talked to a counselor in a rural Georgia high school. A newcomer to Georgia, she told me many members of the school staff grew up in the area and attended college nearby. As a result, they tended to direct kids to the same college, figuring perhaps the students, like them, wanted to stay close to home. And they felt parents in the town preferred their children not to leave, according to the counselor.

Another issue for rural students is navigating the college admission process. (As a parent of two high school seniors, I can testify to the challenges of the application process. I am in awe of kids who travel this path without a lot of adult guidance.)

With that background, here is Dr. Means' essay:

By Darris R. Means

Last fall, I was having a conversation with a group of high school students from a rural part of the Deep South. I asked them about college and university representatives that visited their predominantly black school, and I was shocked by their answers.

In his research, UGA's Darris Means focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion in K-12 and higher education contexts.

Credit: Maureen Downey

icon to expand image

Credit: Maureen Downey

I graduated from a suburban high school, and we had college and university representatives visiting on a regular basis. So I was surprised when this group of high school students shared that the only representatives they could recall were from the local technical college and military. While I believe technical or community colleges or the military are two avenues for students to pursue after high school, there should be more options.

But it is concerning if the only outside representatives coming to recruit students are from the local technical college and military — what message does that send to rural students, especially black rural students?

Over the past few years I have studied issues surrounding rural students of color and college access. My research took place in two different states, but both focused on residents of the "Black Belt," a region in the U.S. south that is predominantly black, rural and impoverished.

And yet as I read about educational programs, policies, and initiatives targeting black elementary and secondary students, it's clear black students are often associated with an urban context. By making this assumption, we miss critical opportunities for educational advancement and improvement among our rural residents, especially those of color. This intersection of race and rurality is often overlooked, but is essential to understand in order to create more equitable educational systems and environments for students of color.

According to the Rural School and Community Trust, there are about 9.7 million rural students in the United States (20.4 percent of all students) and about 2.6 million rural students of color (26.7 percent of all rural students). This means, without a shift in our policies and procedures, 2.6 million students may be overlooked on their way to college.

Many want to pursue college. In the recently published study in the Review of Higher Education, colleagues and I interviewed black high school students and staff members in a rural, predominantly black high school about their impressions of college access. Many students had parents, teachers, coaches and school counselors who pushed them to go to college, but this encouragement was tempered by a lack of resources.

For example, students overwhelmingly felt they had encouragement and support to go to college, yet didn't have access to rigorous classes or enough one-on-one time with a counselor to get help with the college admission process (the college admission process can seem daunting, especially for someone who will be a first-generation college student). Also, students at the rural high school said they felt motivated to go to college, but also felt constrained by geography—pressure to attend a school closer to home for family reasons—or were concerned about fitting in or doing well academically.

There are several implications for this study:

•First, colleges and universities, especially the most selective state institutions, have an opportunity to think about ways to recruit students from rural communities.

•Second, educational leaders and state policymakers must consider how resource allocations affect rural students of color and their educational experiences. For example, how to provide access for students to take higher-level courses, such as Advancement Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, or dual enrollment at local colleges and universities. These courses may go a long way in helping students feel better prepared to enter higher education. In addition, it's important to consider how to provide more college advisement for the most under-resourced schools in each state, which often includes rural schools.

I, too, am a product of the Black Belt. My two younger brothers and I were raised by my grandparents. They, in turn, were raised in a rural area of Spartanburg County, S.C., with limited formal education — shaped mainly by their race (black) and location (rural and Southern). Two generations later my more suburban education, and the opportunities it brought me, only heighten my awareness of race and rurality.

We cannot miss these opportunities for our rural students of color to open doors once untouched by previous generations.