Note: The Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI) has published ten papers over the last six months, looking at important issues in rural education. This is the second in a series of four blog posts that examine key themes that have emerged from our work. The first blog post discusses the need for rural education reformers to reconcile broader national and world standards with the demands of place-based education. The second blog post, below, addresses the need to increase rural students’ participation and success in college. Reports from the ROCI task force are available at: www.rociidaho.org. Stay up-to-date on future publications by following on Twitter: @ROCIdaho.
COLLEGE AND CAREER CONNECTIONS IN RURAL SCHOOLS
By Paul Hill
Though rural K-12 education in most places is performing reasonably well on traditional academic instruction, schools need to give young people better linkages, both to further learning and employment close to home, and to higher education and jobs in urban areas. Students who are geographically isolated from institutions of higher education face particularly severe “linkage” problems. The educators who serve them can also be isolated from new ideas about teaching and the demands of the economy.
In Idaho and in many other states, rural schools have reasonable success teaching core courses and keeping students engaged until graduation. However, schools are much more challenged when it comes to preparing children for education and work after high school. Rural students are less likely to apply to college, less likely to enroll if admitted, and less likely to complete a degree if they enroll. Economic and social factors – e.g. rural students’ distance from their families and unfamiliarity with the college environment – work against rural students. But so might their schools — what students are taught, the kinds of work they are assigned in high school, and how they are advised about college choices. Understanding the causes and remedies for rural students’ college difficulties will be a major focus of future task force work.
Rural areas in sparsely populated states are much more isolated than they are in the Midwest and South. In Ohio, for example, the distance between rural towns is seldom more than 5 miles, and no place in the state is more than 20 miles from a college or university. Something like that might be true for a few places in southern Idaho near Boise and eastward along the old Union Pacific route. But in Central and Northern Idaho, little settlements can be 50 miles apart, and separated by mountains and linked by roads that are closed in winter. Much the same is true in Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico.
This is a challenge to teachers, principals, and superintendents, who can go most of a year without seeing anyone else who does a similar job. In Idaho, where there is no system of regional service centers to provide professional development and pooled services like special education, educators are on their own most of the time. They can keep up with journals, attend summer meetings in Boise, and use on-line materials, but they get little peer group support. Though many rural educators are intellectually alive and striving to improve, the isolation from professional colleagues is a significant problem.
Remoteness also limits students’ links to the worlds of work and higher education. In small remote places, the kinds of work done are few, and opportunities for students to learn about the broader economy are limited. When there is a community college nearby, rural educators make aggressive use of their job training programs for older students. But that is not possible in parts of the sparsely settled states where no community colleges exist.
The lack of community colleges is also a barrier to college attendance for rural students. Students who need to move to a distant place on order to attend community college face greater costs, and more difficult social adjustment, than those who can attend community college without leaving their hometowns. Though further research needs to be done about this, it is likely that lack of access to community colleges also reduces the number of students who transfer to 4-year colleges and earn Bachelor’s degrees.
Idaho is building a set of online resources for that will provide a range of community college-style courses including ones tailor-made for the kinds of jobs available in particular communities. This can be a partial remedy, for students and remote communities with particular skills needs. It is not clear whether it have a broader beneficial effect, e.g. on rural students’ overall college credit accumulation, completion of associates’ degrees, or transfers to 4-year colleges. In future the task force will review this and other options for Idaho and other states, including investment in a more robust traditional community college system.
Paul Hill is the chair of the ROCI task force, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and former director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.