AAC&U News, March 2017

Perspectives – Expanding College Opportunities for Rural and Working-Class Students

Colleges and universities across the country are contending with a haunting reality: much of America is hurting.

“In regions suffering economically—in four years, Kentucky has lost 10,000 coal jobs paying $60,000 to $70,000 a year—residents are grappling with the loss of good unskilled jobs,” wrote Laura Pappano in “Colleges Discover the Rural Student,” a recent article in the New York Times.

“All of a sudden, rural is on everyone’s mind,” Kai A. Schafft, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center on Rural Education and Communities, told Pappano.

Enticing rural students—who often live under the poverty line hundreds of miles from the large population centers where many universities are located—to leave their families for college has been one of higher education’s enduring challenges.

“The simple question—What is college for?—gets more complicated depending on where you ask it,” Pappano wrote. “Rural America has been slow to see the net value in higher education. For regions in pain, do university degrees help?”

Institutions and organizations across the country are convinced that degrees do help, and they are exploring new ways to reach rural communities by bussing prospective students hundreds of miles for campus visits or delivering services such as recruiting, advising, and AP programs that are often taken for granted in urban and suburban communities.

According to Pappano, “the College Board sent customized guides on applying to college and for financial aid to 30,000 students in rural schools. . . . A team is also in place exploring more tailored help, including virtual college advisers with local knowledge, a rural-specific college application guide, outreach to counselors in rural districts, and more online help.” 

Scott McDonald is the director of admissions at Texas A&M, which buses prospective students across the state to visit the campus. He told Pappano that many colleges believe, “We don’t get many of those students; it’s not worth our time,” but he doesn’t think this is true. These students have “a unique perspective . . . In terms of diversity, geography is just as important as racial and ethnic.”

Another recent article in the New York Times by Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Wanted: Factory Workers, Degree Required,” reported that companies and two-year colleges have found another innovative way to reach new students by bridging academic and vocational gaps to provide workers with skills that factories require and high school degrees don’t necessarily provide.

At John Deere, for example, “fixing tractors and grain harvesters now requires advanced math and comprehension skills and the ability to solve problems on the fly. . . . Faced with a skills gap, employers are increasingly working with community colleges to provide students with both the academic education needed to succeed in today’s work force and the specific hands-on skills to get a job in their companies,” Selingo wrote.

Companies—including Siemens, John Deere, and Aon Risk—ranging across the manufacturing, insurance, finance, information technology, and health care industries have paired company apprenticeships that deliver salaries and hands-on vocational training with associates degrees that include the key academic skills that employers need.

 “Struggling to fill jobs in the Charlotte plant, Siemens in 2011 created an apprenticeship program for seniors at local high schools that combines four years of on-the-job training with an associate degree in mechatronics from nearby Central Piedmont Community College,” Selingo wrote. “When they finish, graduates have no student loans and earn more than $50,000 a year.”

Selingo said that the US “Department of Labor’s registry now lists 21,000 programs with about 500,000 apprentices, which sounds impressive but represents only 1.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in this country and is far short of demand. Still, participation is up 35 percent and the number of programs by 11 percent since 2013.”

These programs offer a financially viable pathway to higher education to students who, for academic, financial, or personal reasons, are not interested in a four-year degree. And, though these students may not enter higher education with the goal of a four-year degree, these programs open up access.

“Apprenticeships can start with a job and end with a Ph.D.,” Noel Ginsburg, chairman and CEO of Intertech Plastics and the leader of Colorado’s Youth Apprenticeship and Career Readiness Programs, told Selingo.

Like Pappano, Selingo sees these associate’s degree internship programs as a positive step toward redefining higher education to improve equitable access and meet the needs of all students: “For working-class voters who feel left out in this economy to be able to secure meaningful jobs, educational pathways must be expanded and legitimized—in the process redefining and broadening what is meant by higher education.”

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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