Magazine Feature

Dare Them to Dream

Colleges can inspire rural high school students to pursue a liberal arts education

By Robert L. Fried

Fall 2021

Ella, now a senior at a university in New England,grew up in rural Vermont in a low-income family with eight siblings. Her father and brother were incarcerated, and during her junior year of high school, she gained emancipation and moved out. For her senior project at Randolph Union High School, teachers and advisors inspired her to explore the criminal justice system rather than disconnect from her difficult family experience, explains Ken Cadow, director of college and career pathways and workforce development at Randolph Union. Randolph staff connected Ella with a criminal defense lawyer and part-time adjunct faculty member at Vermont Law School, who mentored her on the project and on her college and career options. Late in her senior year, Ella decided to apply to college to study history and psychology. She is now planning to attend law school.

Randolph Union requires that every student connect with a mentor from outside the school building, be it a college educator or a business professional, before graduating. Three educators at the school support faculty and students to make this happen: Cadow as director of college and career pathways and workforce development, the senior project director, and the project-based learning coordinator. The outside mentor requirement has inspired students like Ella from non-college-oriented families to reach for a liberal arts education by connecting them with mentors at nearby colleges and universities, including Vermont Law School, Dartmouth College, the University of Vermont, and Middlebury College. “In our rural town, staff and teachers at our high school work hard to link students with mentors who will help them see how the liberal arts can connect to a fulfilling career,” Cadow says.

Randolph Union High School

As a society, we are accustomed to advancing the meritocratic ethos that sends the children of affluent and professional families on to four-year liberal arts colleges while leaving behind others who are fully capable but who come from low-income or working-class families or from families of color. Such students often feel that a liberal arts college education is meant for other people, not for them. The New American Baccalaureate Project, a nonprofit organization where I serve as executive director, focuses squarely on this deficit, and with our Village Commons Initiative, we urge liberal arts colleges to embrace their rural, low-income, and working-class neighbors as part of an expanded view of diversity. The initiative aims to help liberal arts colleges become Village Commons responsive to the needs and aspirations of their region, be it rural, urban, or suburban, rather than a “privileged enclave” of politically liberal attitudes that are in many ways alien to the more conservative views of folks in nearby communities. We are currently working with Molloy College in New York and Antioch College in Ohio to build partnerships with area high schools and reach students as early as their sophomore year of high school. Both Molloy and Antioch are members of a larger Village Commons network that includes Berea College in Kentucky, Hiram College in Ohio, Thiel College in Pennsylvania, and the University of Redlands in California, and we aim to expand this network.

Randolph Union’s work to partner with area colleges and universities to connect rural and low-income high school students with college mentors serves as a good model for Village Commons efforts. “A rich exposure to college faculty is vital” early in the high school experience, says Cadow, whose role was specifically created to match students with internship opportunities and higher education mentors.

“So many of our kids, here and elsewhere in rural America,” Cadow says, “won’t commit additional years of their life—let alone money, no matter how reduced a tuition might be—to more education unless they have proof that liberal arts institutions are places they can belong and that the payoff will be satisfying both intellectually and pragmatically.”

Randolph Union’s project-based learning classes connect students with the community.

Across higher education, faculty and staff commonly bemoan the fact that so many young people from lower-income, first-generation, or working-class families do not see a robust liberal arts education as a possible path for themselves. These young people may view such a college experience as too remote from the lifestyle and culture they have grown up with, too expensive, too politically liberal, or not a match with how they envision their career path. Many of them possess too narrow a view of their own potential, a point often made by the late Mike Rose, who served as a New American Baccalaureate Project board member. If they think of going beyond high school, they are most likely to choose—or be guided toward—technical or business training. In talking with former high school students, I heard from many that they hadn’t found high school especially relevant to their lives, so they blew off important opportunities to gain knowledge and skills, especially in the humanities. And, while a student like Ella is a wonderful example of what can happen when supportive staff and faculty connect high schoolers to an undergraduate liberal arts education, many thousands of other young people with similar potential are denied such opportunities because they don’t have someone like the Randolph Union staff to help them cross the bridge to a wider world. Indeed, in 2016, only 20 percent of dependent (younger than age twenty-four) undergraduates at US colleges and universities were from families in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center. Moreover, only 26 percent of adults ages 22 to 59 who do not have a college-educated parent have a bachelor’s degree, according to Pew.

Many of these young people possess active, capable minds, but because they often come from families where higher education is not expected of them, they get tracked outside the four-year-college-bound group. But “why do the smartest students have to be the richest? Why do [our colleges think they] have to compete for a handful of ‘diverse’ students?” asks Cathy N. Davidson in her book The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. “How can [the] scrappy genius [of kids who’ve dealt with challenges growing up] be channeled in higher education without it being overlooked or snuffed out?”

In America today, our democracy may not survive the increasing polarization in society if tracking in high school, combined with high tuition costs, restrict a liberal arts education to those whose families can afford it, to the few high achievers from low-income families on scholarship, or to those willing to assume a lot of debt. Our democracy is threatened as much by the educational divide as by the political chasm. Indeed, the two are closely linked. A liberal arts education that brings more students from non-college-family backgrounds—and from working-class families who distrust “elites”—into the global conversation on issues like social justice and environmental sustainability may be essential to the preservation of our democracy and the future of our planet. And this is exactly what our small liberal arts colleges have to offer America and the world as we struggle to come to grips with our political and cultural polarity.

Too many liberal arts colleges, particularly those in rural areas, are perceived (and may see themselves) as politically liberal enclaves in a largely conservative milieu. One college president confided to me, “I don’t even use the term ‘liberal arts’ anymore when speaking to my neighbors, not after one of them shot back, ‘What’s wrong with conservative arts?’ ” Another president reported that “fully half our students come from areas that voted for Trump. It’s up to us to create a safe space where all our students can experience a genuine dialogue.” Former University of Richmond president Ronald A. Crutcher, writing in Inside Higher Ed, argues, “The time students spend on college campuses may be their last and best opportunity to learn how to have conversations across racial, cultural and ideological differences.”

Liberal arts colleges must create conditions where young people can come together to explore how to live together in a more equitable, tolerant, and sustainable political and ecological climate, unlike the ideologically divisive and mutually alienating discourse that characterizes much of the intellectual climate in our society. It is all too easy for us in liberal education to decry the growing political and cultural divide in our nation without realizing that reknitting our society includes reaching out to a variety of students in high schools early on and building relationships with them that open up possibilities and create broader horizons. Although many liberal arts colleges and universities have thoughtful summer pathways and dual-credit courses to attract underserved students from regional high schools, most have not come near to realizing the full potential that such students have of creating ongoing enrollment streams from families that see their local college as a caring partner in their community’s well-being.

Berea College is a New American Baccalaureate Project institution.

Too few of our small liberal arts colleges have embraced the values of pioneering institutions like Berea College, which believes it is central to its mission to serve the intellectual, cultural, social, and economic needs of people in the Appalachian region while also providing its students with a liberal arts education. And too few students who possess the “scrappy genius” that Davidson champions are afforded the opportunity to transform their lives, as has Ian, another of Cadow’s mentees, who has been in and out of foster homes since he was very young and has experienced prolonged periods of homelessness. When Ian was a sophomore in high school, Cadow explains, a history class guest lecturer from a local college spoke on Vermont’s role in the Revolutionary War and led a Socratic seminar: Would Ethan Allen and his raucous Green Mountain Boys still be considered heroes in today’s world? Ian rolled up his sleeves for this conversation and leaned in. This exposure to what was for him a much more relevant view of history led him to become engaged as a citizen. He has since advocated for the town government to approve an official resolution on climate change. He also applied to colleges across the country and is now attending a Vermont state college.

The lawyer andadjunct faculty member who mentored Ella told Cadow that her career as a lawyer was the result of growing up in a community where everyone went to college and graduate school. “Ella has drive and a mission and is a remarkable young woman,” the lawyer told Cadow, “but chance [that she would find the right mentor to guide her] played too big a role in where she is now.”

The goal of having a program to seek out business and higher ed mentors for high school students, Cadow says, is to “leave it less up to chance for all of our students” and ensure that educators prioritize their roles in the lives and futures of students like Ella.

Another student Cadow worked with at Randolph Union, Kay, grew up in the hills of Vermont with her sister and her father, who works the night shift. Her mother hasn’t been involved in Kay’s life in years, Cadow explains. When Kay was a sophomore, Randolph Union partnered with a University of Vermont (UVM) faculty member who studies the intersection of predatory wildlife and human communities. Along with other students, Kay participated in the faculty member’s research, collecting data, setting and monitoring wildlife cameras, and interviewing community members about wildlife interactions in the area. Kay has continued a research relationship with the faculty member and has applied to UVM, among other colleges and universities.

Kay’s early connection to higher education was successful, but when high school students seeking a connection to a college-level researcher or faculty mentor are unable to locate one, great opportunities are lost. Gus, another of Cadow’s students, was fascinated by the prospect of genetically modifying food crops to adapt to the effects of climate change. For the next three years, Cadow says, Gus created his own independent classes and worked with high school faculty to create a lab to study the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on our food systems. Cadow’s efforts to recruit someone from higher education in the region to work with Gus all failed. After graduating from Randolph Union, Gus pursued his interest in GMOs, meeting with people from around the country with home labs. Recently, though, Gus asked Cadow for a letter of reference to work as a quality assurance specialist on a local plastics manufacturer’s production line. He got the job, but Cadow wonders if Gus might have had more success researching GMOs as a career if he’d been able to work with someone in higher ed—someone who might have motivated him to attend college.

Hiram College is a New American Baccalaureate Project institution.

So how can we entice colleges and universities to recognize the advantages of connecting with local high school students in ways that expand our current notions of diversity to benefit the colleges, local communities, and our society as a whole? A successful mentorship program takes investment and planning. Dynamic partnerships need to be created between colleges and willing high schools, beginning with dialogue between the institutions. Colleges can center the conversation by asking their high school colleagues questions like:

“How many of your students are now working well below their potential?”

“Who are the students who might benefit greatly from a four-year college but don’t have the support at home to encourage them to apply?”

“Are some quite talented kids blowing off high school because they can’t see how it relates to their lives?”

“Which teachers and guidance counselors have a strong affinity for these students and enjoy their confidence?”

“How would the high school benefit if more students were to enroll in and graduate from our college?”

“What other ways can our college serve your high school and community?”

In return, high schools can ask faculty and administrators at their local college:

“Can our students feel confident that they will be welcomed on campus, socially and academically, and not be looked upon as ‘townies’?”

“Is there a way that high school teachers who care deeply about these students can work with college faculty
during the students’ early college years to help
them succeed?”

“Will the college curriculum include courses and projects that allow our students to give back to their towns and neighborhoods by helping solve local problems, thereby building stronger bonds with local citizens?”

The New American Baccalaureate Project argues that such conversations should be led by a group that might include high school administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, and students and must be based on a high level of mutual respect. While few high schools currently pursue higher education connections by creating positions like Cadow’s and his colleagues’, almost every school has teachers or guidance counselors who care about the prospects of intelligent students who fall outside of the honors or Advanced Placement categories. Many liberal arts colleges are currently facing falling enrollments due to demographic and other factors and would do well to forge mentoring partnerships with the high schools that surround them.

Thiel College is a New American Baccalaureate Project institution.

After conversations to establish the partnership, the higher ed and high school partners should start taking action. They might have students design a high school course around their vision of the future; they might spend a day or weekend meeting with student groups from other high schools. They could go on from there to plan weeklong college campus events during spring break or the summer.

We have no illusions about the complexities of this process. High school students don’t easily transform from apathetic kids who mostly come to school to be with their friends into highly motivated learners. Trust and self-confidence aren’t built overnight. But young people have an amazing ability to change direction if challenged and supported, two things best offered in a context in which liberal arts colleges and area high schools work as partners.

The net effect of such community outreach—beyond attracting new cohorts of students—will be to position liberal arts colleges and universities as Village Commons for community empowerment and democratic engagement, especially if students are encouraged to include community-based projects in their studies. The future of American democracy may well hinge on such a redefining of whom we are meant to serve.

Image credits: Randolph Union High School, Berea College, Hiram College, and Thiel College