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Welcome back to The Ear, Spectator’s podcast dedicated to documenting, excavating, and investigating Columbia’s past and present. In this week’s episode, reporter Natalie Goldberg investigates affirmative action initiatives specific to rural students. When financial strain, inadequate infrastructure, and cultural expectations discourage rural students from attending higher education institutions, how do they overcome these barriers? Is affirmative action really the best course of action for alleviating rural education inequality? Columbia students from rural areas and a rural education researcher from Teachers College weigh in on the idea of rural affirmative action.


“All ‘ruralites’ in the University and others interested in rural education and country life are invited to this gathering. The only prerequisites are a signature on the supper list sometime before tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock and an extra half dollar in the pocket-book to pay for this supper. Remember, too, that country folks are always good cooks!”

[Natalie Goldberg]: One hundred years ago, the Rural Club at Teachers College invited students to the Hudson Palisades. The invitation, published in a July 1920 Spectator article, encouraged students to come together and discuss rural education initiatives. Decades later, Columbia students are still engaging in these same conversations.

Teachers College has a long history of supporting students from rural areas. Spectator’s coverage of the Rural Club at Teachers College is present as early as 1916. The club held panels on topics like rural illiteracy, health, and wellness and provided social opportunities for rural students to meet each other and connect. Though the Rural Club at Teachers College has seemingly disbanded, Ty McNamee and two others have come together to form something similar: the Rural Education and Healthcare Coalition.

[Ty McNamee]: We wanted to support rural students who are at Columbia in their experiences of being at Columbia, in New York City. We wanted to make sure that we were supporting folks that are interested in rural education [and] health care topics. We wanted to make sure that we were thinking about intersectionality with rural identities. So we know that rurality is not a monolith and so we want to make sure that we’re talking about folks who may be left out of conversations, like rural poor, working-class students, rural students of color, rural students with disabilities, a host of other people, rural queer people, that just don’t get talked about enough in the mainstream narratives around rurality.

[Goldberg]: Interestingly, the REHC is highlighting many of the same issues that the Rural Club in the 1920s was attempting to address, like healthcare and education inequality in rural communities. Like the Rural Club, the REHC aims to provide an opportunity for students from rural areas to meet, aid, and uplift each other. Now, instead of picnics on the Hudson Palisades, the REHC holds student success conferences over Zoom.

Organizations like this are crucial for highlighting the extreme inequity that members of rural communities face when they attempt to access higher education. Only 59 percent of high school graduates from rural areas attend higher education, compared with 62 percent of urban graduates and 67 percent of suburban graduates. This statistic, however, doesn’t shed light on the further differences between rural, urban, and suburban students who attend selective universities like Columbia. According to some of the students I interviewed, there’s a push in rural communities for students to attend a state university or community college rather than a private institution.

A highly selective university like Columbia has been historically inaccessible to underprivileged and underserved communities. And in the fight for education equity, rural students have often been, and continue to be, left out of the conversation.

[McNamee]: Being from a small town is one of the few things that it’s somehow still acceptable to make fun of or make light of in society. And we see it in media, we see it in our day-to-day interactions with folks in the city. And it’s always that stereotype around being a country bumpkin, or being a redneck, or whatever it is.

[Goldberg]: Both statistics and students describe three major factors that likely contribute to education inequality among rural students: financial barriers, inadequate educational infrastructure, and cultural differences.

First, the issue of financial inequality. According to the Census Bureau, students from rural areas often come from households with a lower average income than suburban and urban students. Not only does the discrepancy make college affordability more difficult for students should they get accepted, but it also deters them from even making the choice to apply. Moreover, recruiters from many schools, including highly selective universities like Columbia, make little effort to hold college symposiums in rural areas—a decision based on the universities’ financial interests. Sam Guyer, a first-year in Columbia College from rural Oregon, describes having to drive hours to attend an event put on by Columbia and other prestigious colleges:

[Sam Guyer]: So my dad and I, we went up and drove up all the way from Medford and we spent our Monday driving up, and then we stayed in a hotel to learn more about Columbia. And so that’s when my first interaction with an admissions officer happened. But as you can tell, this happened in Portland, it didn’t happen in my town, or even remotely near my town.

[Goldberg]: The financial inequalities that members of rural communities face also impact their opportunities to learn more about universities like Columbia. Because so many highly selective universities focus on places where they can “get the most bang for their buck,” recruiters and admissions officers are often sent to urban or suburban schools where they can talk to a senior class of 1,000 or more, rather than a senior class of 70.

Other monetary concerns also impact rural students.

[Evan Myrdal]: Seeing my now-peers at Columbia, a lot of people going to different prep schools or private schools—definitely a lot higher income. Public schools are completely dependent on property taxes. So when you have a school dependent on property taxes in a fairly conservative area that wants low taxes, low property taxes equals low funding for schools, so it’s a little limited in places and there’s a lot of strife over where the money’s going and all of that.

[Goldberg]: That’s Evan Myrdal, a first-year in Columbia College from rural Pennsylvania. The lack of funding he describes is relatable to many from rural areas, and it often contributes to a lack of necessary educational infrastructure within rural schools. Advanced Placement classes highlight the glaring inequalities that persist in the college application process. While many competitive universities like Columbia expect or even require AP test scores, some students from rural areas, like School of Engineering and Applied Science first-year Lydia Futrell, don’t even have access to these courses in the first place:

[Lydia Futrell]: I was the only student taking AP classes at my high school because my school just didn’t offer any. So I was taking them online. So I had to go to my principal, and say, “Hey, I think I want to do this. What’s the policy here?” And because I also had to do a lot of research on what AP classes were because I just didn’t know anything about it. I was the first one at my school to do it. I had to sit down and talk with him and say “This is the class I want to take; this is why I want to take it.” And I wanted to take it because I knew that I wanted to try to apply to out-of-state schools and try to see how high-reaching I could be with college, I guess.

[Goldberg]: Lydia isn’t the only student who has to deal with this problem. About 50 percent of rural school districts have zero students taking AP courses, which is staggering when compared to the 5.4 percent of suburban districts and 2.6 percent of urban districts.

Inadequate infrastructure in rural areas also shows up in terms of faculty. For the majority of the students I interviewed, their college counselors were unaware of universities like Columbia and were ill-equipped to help the students who wanted to apply there.

[Futrell]: My counselor is a very nice woman, and she was very good at helping people figure out what credits they needed for the state schools. But yeah, she definitely didn’t have much experience with having to write Common App essays for all these places and having to do all sorts of supplemental items.

[McNamee]: Our high school guidance counselor, like at a lot of rural schools, had other positions that he also had. So he was the athletic director and he coached and was the high school guidance counselor.

[Madalyn Hay]: So, there wasn’t a lot of funding. My counselor, there was only one of them. They didn’t do much. The teachers definitely care a lot though.

[Myrdal]: It became very apparent, after I got into college, that there was definitely a lack of support for people that wanted to pursue higher education, especially [at] quote unquote, elite universities like Columbia.

[Goldberg]: The high school teachers in rural areas care deeply about their students, but they simply do not have enough funding or experience to fully serve them, especially students with aspirations for schools like Columbia. Many rural high schools don’t have the funding to hire college counselors who have experience getting students into top-tier universities. Moreover, there is often very little interest from teachers with the qualifications to teach AP courses to come work in these rural communities. Clearly, it’s not an issue of caring but an issue of means.

In addition to financial inequalities and systems that fail students, there is also a strong culture that looks down upon the perceived elitism of higher education institutions like Columbia. Charles Fluharty, the president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa, spoke with The Atlantic about the prevalence of this culture:

“‘This has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s not an educational phenomenon,’ Fluharty said. Encouraging a rural student to go to college instead of doing the same work as the adults in a community, he said, is like ‘suggesting that that child should not do what I have done, should not be where I have been, should not value all that I have raised them to honor, whether that’s going to the mill or turning on the tractor at 6 a.m.’”

Lydia has had personal experience with the weight of these cultural expectations. Prior to expressing interest in attending Columbia, Lydia was slated to be a fifth-generation Iowa State graduate and the fourth Iowa State engineering graduate in her family. She recounts facing backlash about her decision to apply to Columbia:

[Futrell]: It was mostly from my grandparents, that kind of idea of “Are the state schools not good enough for you?” I mainly thought it was funny that I was the family disappointment for going to an Ivy League.

[Goldberg]: While it’s amusing to think about the possibility of being perceived as a disappointment for going to an Ivy League university, these kinds of cultural expectations have dramatic impacts on students’ desires to go to top-tier schools.

Other cultural barriers also impact rural students and their decisions to pursue higher education, especially when it comes to Columbia. Moving from a town of fewer than 100 people to a city of over 8 million can be jarring and can create understandable culture shock for those who undertake it.

It is clear that students from rural areas face a myriad of issues when attempting to access higher education. As a result, there has been much debate over precisely how to aid them.

Certain universities have begun to use affirmative action in order to target students in rural areas during the admissions process. In 2017, the University of North Carolina system moved forward with its plan to generate an 11 percent increase in student enrollment from rural and low-income areas. UNC’s practice is often referred to as affirmative action, though that moniker has been contested by some in the field.

[McNamee]: I really steer clear of using the words “affirmative action” because it’s been so instrumental in thinking about racial and ethnic identities and gender identities and I don’t want to take away from those movements. But I will say I am in full favor of making sure that rurality is brought to discussions around higher education admissions and success initiatives.

[Goldberg]: That’s Ty McNamee, a Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College who I spoke about earlier. In addition to co-founding the REHC, McNamee is also in the process of conducting research on what he calls:

[McNamee]: Intentionally bringing awareness to rural populations, and intentionally targeting rural demographics to ensure that you’re getting those folks into the college admissions process and pool.

[Goldberg]: While McNamee can’t disclose the full results of the study until they’re published, he has offered insight into what the best practices are for actually helping rural students:

[McNamee]: If you’re not actively defining rurality within your policies, you might be missing the mark and actually accidentally targeting other demographics or populations, instead of specifically targeting rurality. And so a lot of people equate income with rurality. … It’s not to say that they’re not sort of connected. But you can’t just say, “Oh, we’re recruiting low-income students. therefore, we’re getting rural students,” because not all rural students will be low-income. And also, you might be recruiting low-income students from suburban or urban places, which is great, but you’re not getting at the rural populations that you think you are. And so we’ve definitely looked at policies like that and thought they might be a little bit too focused on income and not focused on the specific rural experiences. And we’ve also noticed that there hasn’t been enough connections with rural communities themselves. When policies like this are designed, there [were] a lot of town halls and open houses and things like that, that connected the UNC system with the UNC leaders. But there weren’t enough rural folks in the room, really saying, “These are our needs. And this is what we need to do.” And so there wasn’t enough drawing upon their specific expertise to understand what the UNC system would need to do to get more rural students to their campuses.

[Goldberg]: But, some people, including rural students themselves, harbor concerns about the possible downsides of intentionally targeting rurality in the college admissions process:

[Hay]: I feel like that could get very white very fast.

[Goldberg]: However, McNamee dispels these notions.

[McNamee]: So we know that rural America does trend white, we know that it trends straight. We know that it trends in specific ways around political ideology and being conservative. And that’s just quantitatively measuring that. But we also know that that’s not the whole story, that there are huge segments of rural America that are being left out when we only focus on that, you know, quantitatively large portion of rural America.

[Goldberg]: Rural America is not a monolith. There are rural people of color, rural queer people, rural people of religious minorities, and various other intersecting identities. When the underrepresented individuals within rural communities are ignored, the hardships that they face, especially during the college process, are just further augmented. If rural individuals are ignored, their needs cannot be met.

Affirmative action, or intentional awareness, however, doesn’t solve the inequality between rural and urban students. Much of the problem lies within the inadequate infrastructure within the schools. This is something backed by both McNamee’s research as well as the personal experiences of the students I spoke to.

At Lydia’s school in rural Iowa, she had to fight with the superintendent to be allowed to take AP classes. For both Evan and Madalyn Hay, a sophomore in Columbia College, who attended schools in Pennsylvania, their counselors were ill-equipped to handle their high aspirations. Many universities refused to make the trek to Sam’s remote Oregon town.

While awareness of the issues faced by rural students can help those who do make the decision to apply, it does not actively solve the root problem of inequity that causes rural students to write off higher education altogether.

Two of the students I spoke to, Madalyn and Evan, were both recipients of the Lenfest College Scholarship. The Lenfest Scholarship, provided through the Lenfest Scholars Foundation, provides students with SAT tutoring and college counseling, as well as substantial funding for the school they eventually choose to attend.

While undoubtedly life-changing, the Lenfest Scholarship is just a Band-Aid for a deeper systemic problem. There are more rural students who deserve the opportunities granted by the Lenfest Scholarship than there are opportunities granted by the scholarship.

[Myrdal]: I’m looking at the two people that didn’t get it. I’m thinking, “What did I do that put me above them?” And these people are also really high achieving. But without this, it’s going to become exponentially harder for them to go to crazy elite schools or whatever, like settling for York or Pitt nursing instead of Penn nursing. ... It was really hard that way because it really felt for me, and I can probably say for the other kids, that we felt like Lenfest was the escape from the cycle of almost mediocrity, in a way.

[Goldberg]: Scholarships like these even the playing field for students from rural areas, but they don’t solve the problems behind the inequality in the first place. McNamee offers perspective on these structural issues:

[McNamee]: A lot of the time, these schools have been overlooked in policy and practice. And so they’re under-resourced and underfunded. And so I think the first thing that could happen on a state and federal level is more funding to the schools to get more college admissions counselors to get more training and professional development for staff and teachers at these schools. Because I think these schools are resilient and they’re doing the best that they can with what they have, but it is really hard when you’re underfunded or under resourced, too under-resourced to do that work

[Goldberg]: According to McNamee, both rural schools and students are resilient. He argues that it isn’t fair for youth in these areas to constantly be overlooked and undervalued simply because of their geographical location. Clearly, the issue goes deeper than universities like Columbia simply taking rurality into account when admitting or rejecting students—colleges must also actively take an interest in rural students’ unique perspectives and experiences.

Evan spoke at length about the joy he felt after getting his acceptance letter from Columbia, an accomplishment for which he greatly credits the Lenfest Foundation. Perhaps every capable student, whether from a rural, urban, or suburban area, deserves the opportunity to feel a similar sense of pride and excitement.

[Myrdal]: I did the applications. I sat down on Dec. 21 or 12—whatever it was—and I just sat there at my computer shaking, shaking, shaking. I opened the email—fanfare blares, tears streaming. It’s the greatest day of my life. And a year and three months later, here I am, I guess.


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