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TULARE, Calif. — Here in California’s heavily Latino agricultural heart, Adrian Lopez has worked on farms and in construction.
Now he’s doing something few people like him from around here ever do: He’s going to college.
Overshadowed by attention to the challenges faced by nonwhite high school graduates in cities, low-income black, Hispanic and native American students in rural areas like this are equally unlikely to go on to college.
Factor in the higher dropout rate among nonwhite students in rural high schools, and the odds that black and Hispanic students from areas like this will ever earn degrees are just as low as for their urban counterparts.
“A lot of them just don’t have that dream,” said Lopez, 27, at College of the Sequoias’ gleaming, four-year-old campus amid cotton fields in Tulare, a county where the U.S. Census reports that nearly two-thirds of the residents are Hispanic.
“They stick around and become managers at Walmart,” added Lopez, who said he decided he wanted a career rather than just a job. “Yeah, they make a living, but is that living?”
Rural students overall are more likely than the national average to graduate from high school in four years — 87 percent, compared to 83 percent nationwide. But rural Hispanics, blacks, Native American and other nonwhite students graduate at lower rates than the national average.
Only 77 percent of rural nonwhite students finish high school in four years, according to the Rural School and Community Trust. In some states, it says, the proportion is even lower. Rural nonwhites in Alaska, with more rural land than any other state, graduate from high school at a rate that’s less than half the national average.
Among those three-quarters of students from low-income, predominantly nonwhite rural high schools who do manage to get diplomas, only about half — 53 percent — enroll in college, the same proportion as their counterparts from predominantly nonwhite, low-income urban high schools and lower than every other group except graduates of high schools that enroll mostly low-income rural whites, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says.
That compares to a national average of 69 percent, the National Center for Education Statistics reports. Seventy-two percent of students from higher-income, predominantly white suburban schools go straight to college, the student clearinghouse reports.
Forty-two percent of people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in all of higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but only 29 percent of rural people in that age group are enrolled, compared to nearly 48 percent from cities.
The reasons are myriad, and often specific to a community or ethnic group. Recent immigrants can be stymied by language obstacles and indigenous groups by poverty and their remote locations far from colleges.
And, like Lopez’s classmates, many rural residents don’t see the need for a college degree, a survey by the Washington, D.C., think tank New America found. They are less likely to have parents or role models around them with degrees, or to see job opportunities that require one.
So while the proportion of graduates from predominantly nonwhite urban schools who go to college stayed flat between 2014 and 2015 — the last period for which the figures are available — for graduates of predominantly nonwhite rural high schools, it declined.
The factors behind these dire outcomes are also getting worse. The number of English-language learners in rural schools, for instance, has grown dramatically, the rural trust notes, often overwhelming rural schools that are already ill-equipped to prepare them sufficiently for college.
The number of students whose primary language is something other than English increased by 18 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2011, but by a staggering 610 percent in South Carolina, 306 percent in Kentucky and 255 percent in Nevada — all states with large rural areas — according to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States. Chatham County, North Carolina, where poultry plants attracted droves of Spanish-speaking immigrants, had 15 English learners in 1987 and 1,640 in 2011.
In addition to the language issue, there is also what rural education leaders call the “brain drain” that creates a vicious cycle: Only the best and brightest go to college, and those graduates do not return to their rural hometowns to become the role models who might encourage other rural young people to attend college.
In tiny Roscoe, Texas, for example, an agricultural community between Abilene and Odessa, even high school graduates who go on to become veterinarians often don’t return, said Kim Alexander, superintendent of the Roscoe school district, which is about 60 percent Hispanic.
“They’re not coming to places like Roscoe to work on cows,” said Alexander, who grew up nearby. “They’re going to Dallas and Houston to work with dogs and cats.”
Cost is also a factor, exacerbated for many rural students by distance. For students in the Bering Strait School District, covering a largely roadless area of northwestern Alaska the size of Minnesota and North Dakota combined, for example, the nearest university is four hours away by plane, in Fairbanks.
Rural areas are not only distant from colleges and universities, they’re far from commercial centers, have few amenities — some 6.5 million students, mostly in rural areas, still lack high-speed internet, the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway says — and struggle to attract teachers, funding and parent involvement, said Devon Brenner, an education professor at Mississippi State University who studies rural schools.
“We’re still super-reliant on things like Teach for America and a very transient teacher population,” Brenner said. And in states including Mississippi, where the immigrant population has swelled, rural schools can’t keep up with the demands for teaching English to students who aren’t native speakers.
These challenges are made worse by racial segregation so extreme in some rural school districts that federal courts have had to step in. In 12,000-resident Cleveland, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, for example, one of the two high schools had been nearly 100 percent black and the other half black and half white. At the former, 63 percent of students graduated; at the latter, 74 percent.
A federal judge forced the schools to merge this year into a single institution that is about 75 percent black. Nearly all the students there are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a typical measure of income, and principal Randy Grierson said it can be tough getting poor parents to focus on their children’s education.
“You have a football game or pep rally and people are going to show up,” Grierson said. “But you have a PTSA meeting and nobody will show up.”
In areas such as Texas and California with high numbers of Mexican immigrants, college enrollment is a particular challenge. Although Hispanics are attending college in increasing numbers, according to the Pew Research Center, they still lag other ethnic groups.
Rural areas are far from uniform; western Alaska differs significantly from Mississippi. But the challenges are similar. In eight very different states — South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, California, Arizona, Utah, Alaska and Washington — high school graduation rates for rural whites are at least 20 percentage points higher than for rural nonwhites, according to the Rural School and Community Trust.
The United States has more than 2 million rural nonwhite students — about a quarter of all rural students — and they comprise the majority of rural students in Alaska, Arizona, California and New Mexico, a state where 85 percent of rural students are nonwhite.
In Alaska, a significant number of rural students are native Alaskan. The Bering Strait School District has nearly 2,000 students; nearly all are indigenous Alaskans.
For many of them, a high school diploma is far more important than a bachelor’s degree, said Bobby Bolen, the Unalakleet-based district’s superintendent. And that’s what the district pushes.
“Their parents didn’t go to college, a lot of them,” Bolen said. His students “can always choose to go to college later, and some of them do, but we want them to get that high school education. To get that diploma gives you options, whether or not you do anything with them.”
In largely rural Hinds County, Mississippi, about 70 percent of the population is black. It can be difficult to push students there toward a college degree, said Yolanda Houston, who directs the teacher preparation program at the 800-student Utica campus of Hinds Community College.*
“Agriculture is a way of life in northwestern Mississippi,” Houston said. “If your family were farmers or factory workers, sometimes it’s not as important to take that next step to community college or a four-year university.”
But the opportunities and economic returns in rural industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and mining have been eroding. A typical agriculture worker makes $22,540 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and mechanization has steadily reduced demand for them; the government projects zero growth in agriculture through at least 2026.
Montana’s seven Native American reservations have only a 66 percent high school graduation rate, 22 percentage points lower than for white students in that state, according to Mandy Smoker Broaddus, Montana’s director of Indian education.
“I’ve seen a lack of academic rigor and expectations” at reservation schools, Smoker Broaddus said. “It’s just sort of become part of the fabric. A lack of exposure to what rigor or high expectations look like makes it difficult for educators or children to picture them.”
Some reservation schools have tried to get at the reasons for high truancy numbers by adding onsite medical clinics, making it less likely children will miss school to drive an hour or more to the nearest clinic. And plagued by the challenges of teacher recruitment, reservations have tried to get more college graduates to return home to teach.
“It’s culturally and linguistically a different landscape, so grow-your-own programs have been very important to us,” Smoker Broaddus said.
The same strategy has taken hold in Texas, which has the nation’s largest rural student population and where more than half of K-12 students are Hispanic. The state graduates nearly 90 percent of its nonwhite rural high school students, a higher proportion than any other state.
One reason is that locals have been successfully recruited to come back and teach, said Martin Winchester, the state’s deputy commissioner of education for educator support.
“If you need future bilingual teachers, guess where they are,” Winchester said. “They’re sitting in your high school seats. You’ve got to get students of color through college in order for them to become teachers.”
But only 35 percent of rural students overall in Texas take the ACT or SAT, the tests often used in college admissions decisions. Still, there have been gains for the state’s recent black and Hispanic high school graduates; their overall college enrollment numbers are up. While about 48 and 44 percent of black and Hispanic 2010 high school graduates, respectively, did not appear to be attending college the following fall, those figures had risen to 52 and 46 percent by 2016.
Back in Roscoe, Texas, Alexander says his district is trying to get more students enrolled in pre-kindergarten classes to instill the value of education early so students see college as a goal.
“Most of that (Hispanic) population, the parents have not been to college or, sometimes, completed high school, so there’s not as much support for education at home,” he said. “How do you break that generational poverty cycle?”
*An earlier version of this story said Yolanda Houston directs the teacher preparation program at Hinds Community College. She directs the program at the college’s Utica campus.