Jenay Willis, a master’s student from Forsyth, Georgia (population: 4,117), always had her sights set on going to college. “I never considered not going,” says Willis, who won multiple college scholarships and had options to go away. But in a concession to her parents, she agreed to attend Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, her mother’s alma mater, about 45 minutes from her hometown. If she graduated, she could go to graduate school anywhere, at their expense.

Willis has retained that focus on her rural roots. After earning her master’s degree in Higher & Postsecondary Education, she plans to pursue a doctorate and then return home to Georgia to work on “college access to higher education for rural, African-American students. I want to be a researcher for my people,” she says.

Jenay Willis

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN After eventually completing her graduate studies, Jenay Willis plans to go back to rural Georgia, where she grew up, and "be a researcher for my people.”

Willis is on course to address a set of national issues that Teachers College students from rural areas had in mind when they created the Rural Student Group, which held its second annual symposium on rural education at the College on April 4th.

[BRIGHT LIGHTS IN THE BIG CITY Click here to read about members of TC's Rural Students Group and their interests.]

A doctor may not be able to come back to my town of 600 people and set up a practice. It might not be possible to sustain a practice there.”

—Chase McNamee

According to the Rural School and Community Trust, in 2015, rural schools enrolled about 9 million, or nearly one-fifth, of the nation’s pre-K through 12th grade students, more than half from low-income families. One-fifth of them are students of color. But while federal policy, resources and research have focused for decades on improving urban education, sparsely populated rural communities have lost political clout and national interest.

McNamee Family

WESTERN THOUGHT The McNamee brothers (Ty on the left, Chase on the right), from Shoshoni, Wyoming (shown here with their mother and stepfather), are both doctoral students in TC's program in Higher & Postsecondary Education.

The result is that, while federal data show that rural high school graduation rates are on par with – and in some places exceed – the national average, these graduates trail their urban and suburban peers in advancing to higher education. In 2015 (the latest national figures publicly available), only 59 percent of rural graduates went immediately to college, compared to 67 percent from suburban schools and 62 percent of urban graduates, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Rural areas are home to far fewer college graduates.

Complex Picture

There are several factors that contribute to this picture:

Poverty. Large numbers of agricultural and manufacturing firms have fled rural areas, resulting in a radical decline in many rural populations, intergenerational unemployment and lack of professional opportunities.

Limited access. In his research paper, “The Disconnect Between Rural States’ High School Graduation Rates and College Enrollment Rates,” Ty McNamee, a doctoral student in Higher & Postsecondary Education from Shoshoni, Wyoming (population: 652), finds that rural high schools have fewer guidance counselors per student than urban schools and offer less access to college catalogs, as well as brochures on and information about the financial aid process. Rural communities are less likely to be visited by college recruiters, other than athletic ones. High school juniors and seniors are less likely to make out-of-town college tours, partly because, typically, there are not many colleges within a day’s drive. (Ty and his twin brother, Chase McNamee, also a doctoral student in Higher & Postsecondary Education, attended the University of Wyoming, which is the state’s only accredited, four-year higher education institution.)

The need to work. Rural youth can often earn a decent wage straight out of high school working in the oil, mining or timber industries, or on a ranch or farm. The McNamee brothers’ mom and stepfather still own the family farm and ranch in Shoshoni, where the twins helped out as boys, trailing cattle, building fences and hauling hay. While they were fortunate enough to pursue higher education after high school, many rural students can’t afford to forgo immediate income in order to go away to college, even if their long-term earning potential would be higher with a postsecondary degree.

Rural America is “one of the last places about which it’s socially acceptable to say a really prejudiced thing.”

—Elizabeth Tipton

A lack of college-going role models. Most critically, Ty McNamee writes, many young people may not be able to find role models or mentors in their communities who can help them envision themselves in college or in a profession that requires a college education. That’s a big gap, because, growing up far from the nearest city or town, rural teens are less likely than their urban peers to encounter and feel comfortable with people from backgrounds and cultures different from theirs.

Even if they do go to college, rural students are less likely than their suburban or urban counterparts to stay enrolled. In 2016, 83 percent of rural students returned to college for their second year, compared with 88 percent of suburban and 84 percent of urban students, according to the National Student Research Center.

Post-graduate opportunity. Even rural students who do persist and graduate from college or graduate or professional school often don’t return home. Chase McNamee understands why: “A doctor may not be able to come back to my town of 600 people and set up a practice. It might not be possible to sustain a practice there.”

RSG: Addressing a Deep Divide  

With all these issues in mind, a group of about 10 students started the Rural Student Group in 2016, partly in response to the presidential election, which had laid bare the deep urban-rural divide that had been growing for years across the country. RSG, which now is open to students from all Columbia campuses, has three basic goals:

  • To increase support for students from rural communities who enroll at TC and Columbia
  • To foster research on rural education and healthcare issues
  • To create a “virtuous circle” by encouraging the rural students who come here to later return home and apply what they have learned to solving education and health problems in rural America. The ultimate goal is to reverse decades of disinvestment, neglect and loss of educated and talented people from rural communities.

In early 2018, RSG teamed up with TC’s Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis (EPSA) to screen and discuss “The Class of ’27,” a film about growing up in distressed American communities. As part of its commitment to exploring rural healthcare issues, in April 2018, RSG and EPSA sponsored the first daylong symposium on rural education and health care, which included poster sessions featuring students’ research on rural issues, a guest lecture about the opioid crisis and substance abuse in rural areas by Jennifer Havens, a researcher at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine; and a keynote on rural college access by Sonja Ardoin, a higher education and student affairs scholar-practitioner now at Appalachian State University.

In the present indigenous community, there is love of wisdom,” he says, “but it’s not necessarily in books. And this is because schooling has given education a bad name.”

—Buddy North

Showcasing Student Work

This year’s all-day symposium on April 4 will include a breakfast and activity for participants to learn about rural towns across the U.S.  The event will culminate in a lecture, “Riding a Bike that’s on Fire:  Rural Black Students and the Pathways to Postsecondary Education,” by Darris Means, Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling & Human Development Services at the University of Georgia, followed by a discussion.

The symposium and other RSG programming offers opportunities for its members to display and discuss their research. Ty McNamee is the primary investigator and first author on a current study examining rural students’ college experiences through a non-deficit framework. He is exploring “what traits, characteristics and cultural background rural students have that help them succeed in higher education, since so much research has just focused on deficits and gaps for rural students.”

Ty is also second author on a study — soon to be submitted for publication — that focuses on how the geographic location of rural higher education institutions influences their support for faculty to engage in research and teaching around sustainability topics.

Lessons Back Home

RSG members are also helping rural students look beyond their own communities. Chase McNamee accidentally learned first-hand about the critical role that technology and technology training can play in connecting rural communities to knowledge and cultural assets beyond their borders.

In his first year at Teachers College, Chase returned home to Shoshoni to help his mother, who had become ill. Rather than suspend his doctoral studies for nearly a year, he was able to continue his research online and meet regularly with his faculty adviser, Noah Drezner, through conferencing technology. As accommodating as Drezner was, it wasn’t easy. Chase had to go to the public library for Internet access, which made him wonder whether better technology could vastly expand college opportunities for rural students.

During that experience, Chase also received opportunities to connect what he had learned in higher education to his community. To earn money while he was back home, he started teaching at Shoshoni High School, his alma mater. One day in class, he overheard a student using a racial slur. Chase reprimanded him, but quickly pivoted to a discussion with the whole class about “why it’s not OK to use that word,” he recalls. “In their minds, that was probably not something that they thought was wrong. I had the opportunity to immediately stop something from happening.”

Chase believes he was effective in that situation because he had grown up in Shoshoni and had gone to that school. The students trusted him as one of their own. And yet, he had gained a different perspective by living and studying in New York City and experiencing a different way of life, and he was able to bring that home to his young students.

“That’s the power of education,” says Chase. “It’s changing the way that people view the world and being okay with gray areas – with other cultures in other regions.”

Jenay Willis is taking a similar lesson from her time at Teachers College. “You have to go where you need to go, to where you can earn that degree or that certificate so you can help,” she says. “I left in order to gain the résumé to go back and help.”