Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Taking Rural To School: The Carleton/Minnesota Case

MinnPost has an interesting article detailing the various programs and practices Minnesota private schools (including my beloved Carleton College) use to bring more students from rural communities to campus.

One thing I think the article does a good job of emphasizing is that attracting rural students, specifically, means being attentive to particular range of problems, concerns, or obstacles which transcend a simple, naked, "we're open to everyone" outlook. Obviously, scholarships are helpful -- and some schools have scholarship programs specifically open to students from rural backgrounds.

But another issue that is pointed out in the article goes to recruitment: when sending admissions representatives on recruiting trips around the country, it's obviously more efficient to visit densely populated sub/urban areas (particularly in relatively wealthy high-performing school districts) that are likely to yield more applicants. Hence, rural students may be less likely to hear about (say) Carleton or get information as to why they should attend or how it will be financially possible to attend. This is a structural disadvantage students from rural communities might face, and so it is incumbent on college admissions offices to take proactive steps to counteract it. Likewise, rural school districts may lack the range of extracurricular activities or programs that are found in their suburban counterparts, and so figuring out who are the true "stars" coming out of rural districts may require more work than simply an apples-to-apples comparison of applicant profiles. And for some schools (particularly those which are not themselves nestled in rural communities), there might also be some attention to mitigating the effects of culture shock -- the delicate balancing between wanting to expand horizons while also respecting that adjustment to new and different communities is something that requires work and support.

All of this is to say, to the extent a school like Carleton desires geographic diversity -- and it does, and it should -- it will have to take specific steps to make itself available and accessible to that community. Tailored scholarship programs, extra attention to non-traditional recruiting, and holistic appraisals of applications are just some of the ways Carleton might take these steps.

There's one last thing worth remarking on. Frequently, when talking about "affirmative action" programs, we hear a stock refrain about the "rural White kid from a small town in South Dakota -- what about him?"  As this article makes clear, the myth that colleges don't care about diversity when it comes to rural kids is just that -- a myth. But there's a bigger issue here. The implication of this critique is that concern for rural students is something competitive with, and antagonistic to, affirmative action programs which seek to increase enrollment of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. In reality, they're two peas in a pod.

The strategies discussed in this article include scholarships that are just "for" rural kids (I wouldn't have been able to access them), specific efforts to recruit from these communities, and even certain types of "weighting" when assessing their application (why should their two extracurricular activities be more impressive than my seven?). These are no different in form than how racial affirmative action works. In neither case is the strategy simply a facial neutrality where we tally up GPAs and standardized test scores and rank accordingly. It isn't even a simple reduction of the entire program to class -- scholarships for people (regardless of race or location) below a certain income. Rather, both the race and the geography case involve taking specific actions that are tailored to, and sometimes restricted to, the particular underrepresented community.

Yet I think this article will elicit very few complaints about "special privileges", or the need for "location-blindness", or odes to the lost meritocracy of yore. I suspect most people will read this article and think these are salutary efforts to improve educational accessibility for a community that is often-overlooked in higher education.

For the record: it's the latter reaction that's the right one. While I myself come from the suburbs, and thus did not receive any of the scholarship money or specialized recruitment or tailored review of my application, I still consider myself a beneficiary of these programs. Why? Well, most obviously, I'm engaged to a fellow Carl who comes from what the article calls "Greater Minnesota" -- that turned out to be a great benefit for me. And of course, one of the many virtues of a truly great liberal arts education is getting to meet and learn from people who hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

My life and learning is better than it otherwise would have been because I got to meet and become friends with people from rural communities. It's also better than it otherwise would have been because I got to meet and become friends with people from lots of other communities, many of which were quite distant (spatially and otherwise) from where I grew up in the DC suburbs. Carleton's efforts to promote this sort of diversity are part of what makes it strong -- in all cases, not just some.

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