“It was all around us, like the air we breathed: No one in our families had gone to college,” writes J.D. Vance in the searing memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.
For many in rural America, this is reality—but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.
Expanding college access for rural students is a national imperative backed up by a reservoir of research on the power of strong K-12 education, the link between college and social mobility, the lifetime earnings premium of a college degree, and the millions of good jobs requiring at least some post-secondary education projected to be available in 2020.
And there are the success stories of individual students, like F&M Sheldon Ruby ’17.
Sheldon hails from tiny Everett, Pa. In high school, he gained a mentor through the Pennsylvania branch of the College Advising Corps, who opened his eyes to the schools with strong financial aid and high graduation rates that truly matched his goals—and to our summer program F&M College Prep.
At F&M, Sheldon has thrived—earning academic honors, gaining faculty mentors, and studying in Indonesia and London. Last fall, he won a highly-competitive 2017 Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship that will fund his master’s degree and give him a diplomatic post in the U.S. State Department.
Too often, bright and hopeful minds like Sheldon remain unseen. Once, he told me:
Where I grew up, there are heavy expectations on students to support the family, and it gives you this intense dedication to whatever you’re doing. When I got to F&M, I wanted to bring that with me… It permeated every part of my college career. Through the first three-and-a-half years I didn’t miss a single class, because I thought that [missing class] would prove I didn’t belong at F&M… That’s one of the big things I’ve been able to bring from my hometown community: a dedication to working hard. That’s how people in my hometown are able to survive, by simply persevering.
Sheldon’s testimony suggests three key tactics for launching rural students to and through college:
Give students access to effective pre-college advising. Personal connections with teachers, counselors or other mentors clear pathways to aspiration. In-school advisers and access programs such as the College Advising Corps help students find the schools that fit their interests, needs and financial resources— which increase happiness and academic progress in college.
Provide pre-college programs that host high school students on campuses to help them envision their own college life. Even a taste of college learning makes students hunger for more—and set higher goals for themselves. These programs must complement a strong secondary school curriculum, which is vital to cultivating a love for learning in the young.
And, show first-generation college goers that we know they can succeed. Sheldon’s success reminds us that students’ personal histories are the grist for college meaning making. In his case, Sheldon’s fellow students have often spoken to me about how much they’ve grown from his achievements, drive, optimism, loyalty and humility.
Education has the power to draw out the greatness in every human being. America needs more Sheldon Rubys and J.D. Vances—and they’re out there, achieving quietly, awaiting expert college advising and the engaged outreach of our leading colleges and universities.
The energy on campus was palpable. I saw countless moments of honesty and integrity, disagreement and empathy."