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Does Being Rural Matter? The Economic & Social Concerns of Rural Graduates

The EvoLLLution | Does Being Rural Matter? The Economic & Social Concerns of Rural Graduates
It’s essential for colleges and universities to help rural students navigate their economic and social concerns, not only to support their access and retention, but to support them after graduation.

For American college students who leave behind their rural communities to pursue higher education, graduation accompanies a set of unique challenges and internal negotiations dissimilar to their urban and suburban peers.

Hidden in plain sight, rural college students and their tribulations often go unnoticed. Less than a third of rural young people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in colleges or universities, while nearly half of young people from cities are, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Rural students are less likely to consider their rural communities as sustainable post-graduation destinations. Consequently, when rural students go to college, they must navigate intensified themes of departure and loss while envisioning futures far from the communities that raised them.

Rural students should not have to traverse this ground unaccompanied. On college campuses, faculty and administrators — especially student affairs and career services administrators — can counsel rural students through their particular economic and social worries.

Financial Concerns: Rural America’s Declining Economies

Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, describes her upbringing in rural south-central Kansas as “a place people said was dying.” Smarsh’s statement echoes larger sentiments of economic destitution and depopulation prevalent in rural America, which weigh heavily on the minds of rural students as they strategize their post-graduation employment.

Change, not stability, characterizes rural America’s economy. Historically, rural economies have been less protected from economic hardship, argues Dr. David Brown, Emeritus Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell University, in Rural America in a Globalizing World. As first-hand witnesses to the financial volatility in their hometowns, rural students question if the lifestyles of previous generations are still achievable in today’s bucolic landscapes. Although agriculture, forestry, and mining will remain essential industries throughout the countryside, service and retail professions currently account for most of job growth in rural America.

For Liam Meier, a recent graduate of New York University and native of Breese, IL, the economic woes of rural southern Illinois first drove him away for college and then again during his job search.

“It’s difficult to choose to go back home when the best opportunities lie elsewhere because economic opportunity and power are concentrated in coastal cities,” Meier, now based in San Francisco, said.

Recognizing the dearth of college support and advocacy for graduates focused on pursing rural opportunities, grassroots organizations have risen to the occasion. To magnetize college-educated youth to West Virginia, Generation West Virginia, in accordance with West Virginia University and Marshall University, delivers professional networking for young professionals, career training workshops and resources for community-focused startups throughout the mountain state. Initiatives, such as Generation West Virginia, are bridges for career centers to feature rural opportunities, not just for rural students looking to return to their hometowns but all students interested in careers in rural America.

According to recent estimates from the 2017 American Community Survey, the non-metro poverty rate was 16.4 percent, compared to 12.9 percent for metro areas. Furthermore, between 2013 and 2017, poverty rates in metro areas declined at a higher rate compared to non-metro areas, thus, further widening the poverty rate gap between them. The survey also highlighted that of 353 persistent-poverty counties in the United States, 301 (or 85.3 percent) were classified as non-metro counties.

Seth Jones, a senior at the University of Wyoming and a native of Upton, Wyoming, learned quickly that leaving home most likely meant not returning because of the town’s limited economy.

“For a lot of people from small-town Wyoming, there simply isn’t the option to return back to your small town and make a living. If you want to stay, people usually attempt to stay with the mines, ranch through family connections, work in education or the service industry,” said Jones.

Mounting poverty and limited job growth in rural America translates to distinctive economic and social worries for rural graduates that may not always be present in the minds of suburban or urban graduates. In order to evade these additional stress factors concerning post-graduation plans Dr. Doug Guiffrida, professor of counseling & human development at the University of Rochester, advocates for supplemental career counseling and advising directly targeting rural populations. Furthermore, Dr. Guiffrida encourages career centers to gradually expose rural students to the plethora of occupations beyond those typical of their rural communities to help lessen crushing feelings brought on by the extensive career choices marketed on college campuses.

“My high school did not prepare myself or many others attending college for what options there would be. So, there certainly was some sense of bewilderment to what I was supposed to do so I could prepare for my career. Having opportunity wasn’t scary, that’s why I wanted to attend college, but not being sure how to plan due to the limited career resources my high school had I did leave me with a major learning curve to adjust to,” said Jones.

Hence, career centers on college campuses must note that many rural students are arriving on campus with limited knowledge of career options and employment plans to develop a wider sense of career opportunities after graduation.

Social Concerns: No Advocates for Returning & Internal Conflicts

Youth exodus from rural communities is not a new phenomenon. However, now more than ever rural youth feel pressured, either directly or indirectly, to abandon their rural communities, with states such as North Dakota, West Virginia, Kansas and Georgia reporting some of the highest rates of out-migration nationally.

A 2010 survey by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship found that roughly 600 rural students overwhelmingly stated their rural communities encouraged them to plan their futures elsewhere. Growing up in Floyds Knobs, an unincorporated township in southern Indiana, Ashlyn Edwards, a recent graduate of Butler University, saw a similar narrative in her Kentuckiana town. “Whenever people from my hometown talk about people that have moved away and have gone on to be successful elsewhere, they are spoken about with sort of reverence and awe,” said Edwards. Thus, narratives, such as the ones Edwards experienced, build an association within rural students that success derives from learning to leave their rural communities.

In rural towns, teachers and town officials frequently campaign for their “best” and “brightest” to attend college outside and  not return, as documented in Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Maria J. Kefalas, a professor of aociology at Saint Joseph’s University.  Moreover, rural students will find themselves in a complicated set of internal negotiations nearing graduation. Despite nudges to abandon their rural roots, many articulate favoring a rural lifestyle over an urban one, if they can manage it.

For some rural youth, they do not let the potential burdens defer plans of returning.

“While the challenge of poverty is increasing, it still doesn’t deter me away,” said Mercedes McCue, a senior at Colorado State University and raised in Arriba, Colorado. “Those economic challenges are issues that we all face out there [eastern Colorado], and we learn to persevere, to adapt, to live simply, and to overcome. They have helped sculpt my own future career path and aspirations: continuing our family legacy of raising cattle and helping youth in agriculture and rural communities through nonprofit organizations.”

Noting the struggles of rural students throughout their college career, some higher education institutions have established means to assist. For example, the University of Michigan and Cornell University have implemented mentorship programs and increased academic support targeting rural students through their Kessler Scholarship programs, with other institutions following suit.

To prepare rural students for post-graduation life, institutions can start preparing them their first day on campus. Institutions can start by becoming more conscious of their messages toward rural students and their communities during recruitment. Admission teams must avoid perpetuating the narrative rampant among small town America that their institutions are only plucking the “best” students out to never return, which often leads to a sense of guilt among both students and families. The sense of guilt carries throughout their entire college career with experiences of code switching on visits home that often heightens near graduation. Jeff Carlson, senior director for strategy, operations, and rural engagement at College Board suggests fostering rural graduates’ interest in returning to their former communities through alumni. By inviting alumni to speak at family nights about their experiences in college as a rural student, they can implant the idea that coming home after graduation does not mean failure.

Recognizing the bombardment of messages besieging rural graduates to evade rural America, select communities are endeavoring to reverse these cultural and social signals. In Holt County, NE, the Holt County Economic Development grants scholarships to departing high school seniors and personalized mailboxes brimming with letters from community members toserve as reminders of their hometowns as they pursue higher education. In addition, local companies offer handsome internships and professional guidance in hopes of reeling the out-goers back one day.

After acknowledging the need to appeal to young college graduates in rural Kansas, towns throughout the sunflower state have invested in alluring amenities — like child care centers — and capitalized on becoming renewable energy or art hubs. College career centers should take note of such initiatives as opportunities to partner with and for potential resources their graduates can use if seeking employment in rural areas.

Although universities have put forth their best efforts to try to help rural students overcome their social concerns Dr. Guiffrida, argues it might be countercultural for rural students to share their problems with people outside their close-knit support network, such as academic, career or personal advisors on college campuses. Dr. Guiffrida’s research reasons that even when rural students seek assistance, they might not know how or where on campus to find it. This is why it is vital for career centers and student affairs offices to make aware to rural students throughout their college career that:

  1. Faculty and academic advisors are available at the college or university to help students with course selection and degree program planning.
  2. Counselors located in career services centers offer assistance in career exploration, planning, and job placement.
  3. Mental health counselors located in college counseling centers are available to assist students with personal and interpersonal problems.

These resources will not only prove helpful while on campus, but also as they are preparing for their post-graduation plans.

Helping rural students navigate their economic and social concerns regarding post-graduation life not only ensures their future success but also unity through our country’s diverse landscapes. In order to persevere and nurture a renovation of rural America, we must invest in rural America’s youth at all stages of their education. As they transition into adulthood, they will become parents, workers, homeowners, voters, and taxpayers key to the countryside’s survival.

As McCue said, “Be where your feet are, recognize that you add value wherever you may be.”

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