How one rural school is overcoming the challenges of college readiness

Education research is revealing the troubling reasons why rural students are less likely to go to college, but some schools are banding together to buck the trend.

The Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus and Matt Krupnick recently pointed out the troubling trend with rural students who, whether because of cost, culture shock, or a sense of hopelessness, just don’t want to go to college.

“It’s not that rural students aren’t academically prepared. They score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than urban students and graduate from high school at a higher percentage than the national average, the U.S. Department of Education reports,” according to the education site.

“Yet even the highest-income white students from rural areas are less likely to go to college right from high school than their well-off white city and suburban counterparts, according to the National Student Clearing House, which tracks this: 61 percent of graduates from high-income, predominantly white schools enrolled immediately in higher education, comparted to 72 percent from urban schools and 74 percent from suburban ones.”

Dustin Gordon, who grew up in Sharpsburg, Iowa—a town with a population of 89, contends “there’s just no motivation for people to go” to college.

“When they’re ready to be done with high school, they think, ‘That’s all the school I need, and I’m just going to go and find a job,” he said.

But some schools are setting a new example by working together.

According to The Christian Science Monitor:

Meadowbrook High School in Byesville, Ohio, part of the Rolling Hills school district, operates in a county beset by declining population and low-wage jobs. The median household income is 24 percent lower than that of the nation as a whole and fewer than 14 percent of adults have a four-year college degree. School officials say that 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure of poverty.

Yet Meadowbrook, which serves 490 students from across a sprawling 128-square-mile district, is thriving when it comes to graduation rates and participation in higher-ed. In just a few years, the school has managed to create a culture in which going to college is becoming the norm rather than the exception. 

The change is tied to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, an effort involving 21 districts working together to provide the same access to dual enrollment courses and postsecondary opportunities as urban and suburban schools.

“We’ve seen tremendous success,” superintendent Ryan Caldwell told the news site. “We think the impact is going to be tremendous for this community.”

In essence, rural communities in Ohio and elsewhere are banding together to motivate students to pursue higher education, through fundraising and encouragement to enroll in dual-enrollment classes.

University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, wrote about the impact communities have on education, and moral education specifically, in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America.

Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.

Meadowbrook is engaging the whole community and others in the same situation to motivate students to succeed. And they’re creating role models for future students to look up to.

The Jubilee Centre and others offer lessons for educators to help students build determination through a focus on the people who inspire them, from celebrities, to teachers, to classmates heading off to college.

A movement to change the ultra-competitive college application process

The ultra-competitive college admissions process is a maddening ordeal for many students and parents, but a movement to include indicators of character alongside the current reliance on test scores and academic achievement is changing the dynamic.

The New York Times recently reported that frustrations with the college admissions process center mostly on how schools define “merit,” a term that’s currently associated mostly with grades and test scores.

“Generally, nothing carries more weight in admissions than grades (plus strength of the high school curriculum) and ACT/SAT scores. With limited time and resources, those metrics offer a relatively quick way to predict who will succeed. But the measures have drawbacks. Grade inflation has complicated the task of evaluating achievements, and so has the variance in high school grading policies,” according to the Times.

“Standardized test scores correlate with family income; white and Asian-American students fare better than black and Hispanic students do. Also, when colleges talk about predicting ‘success,’ they usually mean first-year grades—a limited definition.”

The situation is prompting schools like Trinity College to incorporate other factors into the process, including things like curiosity, empathy, openness to change, and the ability to overcome diversity. Trinity admissions officers now use a drop-down box labeled “Predictors of Success” that allows them to highlight students who display “comfort in a minority of one,” “delayed gratification,” or “risk taking” among others gleaned from student applications.

Angel B. Perez, Trinity College’s vice president of enrollment, told the Times the school has also stopped requiring students to submit ACT or SAT scores with their applications, a move that’s boosted the numbers of low-income and first-generation students in recent years.

“I’m trying to increase the tools we have, and get beyond a system that is absolutely antiquated,” Perez said. “As the country becomes more diverse, as we learn more about the correlation between standardized test scores and wealth, we have to be a lot more creative in predicting for success in college.”

Other schools are using live in-person tryouts to assess positive qualities like collaboration and critical thinking that aren’t always obvious on paper.

At Olin College of Engineering, prospective students visit the campus for an intense two-day live audition where they’re arranged in teams and given tasks such as constructing a tower that can hold a certain weight or designing a building for the campus.

“It’s hard to nail down a student’s mind-set from the traditional elements of the application,” said Emily Roper-Doten, dean of admissions. “This allows us to see them in motion, in an educational moment.”

Larger schools without the means to offer in-person tryouts because of an overwhelming number of applications are instead turning to virtual demonstrations. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology now includes an optional “Maker Portfolio” in its application that allows students to showcase major projects they’ve accomplished through short videos, images, or PDF files.

“It gives us a fuller picture of the student,” Stuart Schmill, M.I.T. dean of admissions, told the Times. “Without this, some applicants might not be able to fully get across how good a fit they are for us.”

Dozens of schools are following M.I.T.’s lead to make admissions more personal with a “virtual college locker” that students can use to upload materials, videos, and other work to showcase their talents, while other issues, such as preference for children of alumni and early admissions processes continue to tip the scales in favor of more affluent students.

An organized push to encourage colleges to incorporate more measures of character could help change that.

According to the Times:

A recent campaign called ‘Turning the Tide,’ a project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is urging admissions deans to rethink the qualities they consider in applicants. In a report signed by representatives of about 200 campuses, colleges are asked to promote ethical character and service to others through the admissions process.

Although some deans say they have no business assessing the character of still-maturing teenagers, the push has prompted a handful of institutions to tweak their applications. The University of North Carolina now emphasizes contributions to others when asking about extracurricular activities. M.I.T. added an essay question asking students to describe how they’ve helped people.

Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard, who leads the initiative, recommends that colleges define service in ways that might resonate with disadvantaged students. “Many students don’t have opportunities to do community service,” he said. “They’re taking care of their siblings, or they’re working part-time jobs to help their families. Colleges need to say, ‘That matters to us.’”

Including character in the measure of a “successful” student is essential to the health of our communities, according to James Davison Hunter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In such a definition, parents, teachers, and, now, college recruiters are reinforcing what’s necessary to living a good life—not grades, achievement, or attainment only, but the content of graduates’ character.

In his book The Tragedy of Moral Education, Hunter argues:

For parents and other adults, the task of “saving our children” means, in large part, telling children what they are being saved for. The task of educating children means teaching them the larger designs that could give form and focus to their individual aspirations, so that they can come to understand not only how to be good buy why . . .