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Cameron Russell, left, is a freshman at the University of Michigan from rural Crowley, Louisiana. His mentor as part of a special program for first-generation students is Elijah Taylor, a senior who grew up in Detroit. Credit: Diane Weiss for The Hechinger Report

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — One of the two students sharing a laptop in the echoing brick atrium of the chemistry building at the University of Michigan is white, a freshman from a rice-growing parish in Louisiana; the other, black, a senior and a native of Detroit.

But there is as much that unites as divides them.

Both are the first in their families to go to a four-year university, a tough road senior Elijah Taylor has already traveled.  Now he’s serving as a mentor for freshman Cameron Russell, whose rural background brings with it struggles of its own that a tiny handful of universities, including this one, are beginning to acknowledge and address.

“Most of the things he’s asked me, I had exactly the same questions,” said Taylor as the two discussed the tribulations of calculus and CHEM 351: Fundamentals of Biochemistry. (“Once you get past 351, all is well,” Taylor assured Russell.) And neither one of them, he said, can “call home and say, ‘Mom, how do I navigate the college experience?’”

Caught by surprise when frustration among rural Americans spilled over into national politics, and grappling with a years-long decline in enrollment, a few colleges and universities have started paying more attention to rural students — and recognizing that they need at least as much help navigating that college experience as low-income, first-generation racial and ethnic minorities from inner cities.

Rural young people “have exceptional graduation rates from high school, really good [standardized test] scores, but we never really came to terms with the fact that they needed extra support,” said Naomi Norman, associate vice president for instruction at the University of Georgia, which in September launched a program to provide scholarships, mentors and other help to rural students.

Rural fourth- and eighth-graders do, in fact, score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than urban students, on average, and just as well as suburban ones, the U.S. Department of Education reports. And rural students graduate from high school at higher rates than their urban, and about the same levels as their suburban, counterparts.

But only 59 percent then go straight to college, compared to 62 percent of urban and 67 percent of suburban high school graduates, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this.

Once they get there, the Clearinghouse has found, they’re more likely to drop out.

Still, only a handful of four-year universities and colleges provide financial and academic support to rural students along the same lines as what many offer urban ones. And most of these initiatives are recent. 

Related: The high school grads least likely in America to go to college? Rural ones

A University of North Carolina System strategic plan proposes increasing rural enrollment by 11 percent by 2021, for instance. A program modeled after Michigan’s will launch in the fall at Cornell. The University of Georgia’s new ALL Georgia Program will eventually provide $7,000 scholarships to each of up to 24 rural students (this year there are six), a summer academic preparation program, mentors, academic advising and a special course covering such things as time management and study strategies; this after a task force found that rural students have higher dropout rates and graduation rates 10 percentage points lower than their classmates, and couldn’t afford the $1,500 fee for the existing summer program for incoming freshmen

Several Pennsylvania universities and colleges have started scholarships for students from rural Schuylkill County, a onetime coal-producing area, using millions from a foundation set up by textile industry entrepreneur John E. Morgan, who came from there and who, with his wife, developed the waffle stitch used in thermal underwear

“It’s fair to say that until fairly recently we just took our rural students for granted,” said Kent Trachte, president of Lycoming College, 20 percent of whose students come from rural Pennsylvania counties; Lycoming just got the second half of a $1 million grant for scholarships for residents of these places from the John E. Morgan Foundation and this year used another grant to start a pre-freshman “summer academy” for them.

Michigan has begun extending the same kinds of financial and academic support to more and more rural students that it does to urban ones. Its Kessler Presidential Scholars Program has previously served mostly first-generation students from nearby Detroit and other cities; when the program started 10 years ago, that’s where nine out of 10 of the participants came from. Now, nearly a third of this year’s 36 new Kessler Scholars are from rural places.

On a gray late Wednesday afternoon well into the first semester, those freshmen scattered in the first few rows of a 142-seat, high-ceilinged amphitheater-style lecture hall for a weekly check-in with advisors and to learn about ways to get the most from their time on campus that their classmates whose parents went to college probably already know.

First, said Reginald Hammond Jr., an academic mentor who works with the program, “We want to know, how are you feeling?” The question elicited thumbs down or pointed sideways. Here in the heart of their first semester in college, Hammond told the group, “You’re really getting a sense of what classes are like, what exams are really like.”

Most of the students hung back, quiet, decked out in T-shirts, caps and backpacks with the distinctive Michigan “M”; when another speaker asked for questions, few had any, or they wrote them down and put them in a bucket for Hammond to read aloud.

Related: For rural colleges, good vocational teachers are hard to find

It can be hard for rural high school graduates to leave their hometowns and go to college, said Sonja Ardoin, assistant professor for Student Affairs Administration at Appalachian State University, who herself grew up in rural southern Louisiana. One reason is that there aren’t many role models around them with degrees, for instance; fewer than one in five rural adults aged 25 and older have them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Alexandra Rammacher started as a freshman this fall at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which has 46,000 students. Her first impression, having come from a rural town with a high school graduating class of 180: “There were so many people!” Michigan is among a handful of schools extending special support to rural students. Credit: Diane Weiss for The Hechinger Report

It’s also rare that college admission officers travel to these places, which are usually far flung and offer only a small number of prospects, said Ardoin, who embedded herself over the course of six months in two high school in a rural-low-income area in the Southeast — she promised not to disclose which ones — for her new book “College Aspirations and Access in Working-Class Rural Communities.”

Related: Economics, culture and distance conspire to keep rural nonwhites from higher educations

“The entire time I was there, I never saw college recruiters. The only recruiters I saw were from the military,” she said. “It sends a message that we don’t want your students, whether or not that was intended.” As for the in-person campus tours many admission offices encourage, “That for most rural students is a ridiculous concept.”

Those rural high school graduates who do go to college often feel distant from their classmates culturally, politically and socioeconomically, Ardoin said. Many went to high schools without Advanced Placement or other high-level academic courses; in college, they feel like they’re trying to catch up. And they know few if any other people at big universities, where feelings of isolation can set in. “One of the huge challenges is a sense of belonging,” Ardoin said.

Alexandra Rammacher’s first impression of the 46,000-student Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, where she arrived in the fall from a high school graduating class of 180 in rural Charlotte, Michigan (pronounced char-LOT), was so overwhelming, she exclaimed it with a shriek:

“There were so many people!” remembered Rammacher. “Every day you would see a face you had never seen before – many faces you had never seen before. And I just wasn’t used to it. I was used to seeing a group of people I already knew. It was just a huge there-are-people-in-the-world revelation.”

An only child who grew up in the Michigan village of Boyne Falls, population: 294 — “We have a gas station and a post office and that’s it” — Allyson Dobrowalski was homesick when she got to Ann Arbor. Ninety-two percent of her high school class graduated, well above the national and state averages, but Dobrowalski nonetheless had to think about whether she knew anyone else from there who went to college. (State records show that, historically, 80 percent have gone on to trade school or some other kind of postsecondary education but a third drop out within a year and fewer than four in 10 finish.)

Dobrowalski’s father, now retired, drove the village snowplow and her mother, who immigrated from Malaysia, is a housekeeper at a Holiday Inn Express; the two met and married after starting up a courtship as pen pals. And while neither of her parents went to college, Dobrowalski’s mother insisted that she give it a try; she’d seen, in her travels, that “people did well” when they got degrees. “My dad just went along with that.”

Rebecca Goodman tells people she lives “near Holland” because hardly anyone at the University of Michigan, where she’s a freshman, has ever heard of her tiny hometown. An astrophysics major, she said she “felt lost a lot of time the first few weeks on campus. Credit: Diane Weiss for The Hechinger Report

A quiet self-described introvert who tells people she lives “near Holland” because, she said, hardly anyone has ever heard of her tiny hometown of Burnips, Michigan, freshman Rebecca Goodman said she “felt lost a lot of time the first few weeks on campus. One, because I didn’t know where I was going; two, because I didn’t know anybody. A lot of people around me knew somebody.” But only one in four of graduates from her high school went to college, state figures show. “The first couple of nights, I just had to sit down and think, it’s okay. I’ll meet people eventually.”

Russell, the freshman from Louisiana, said his rocky start was academic. While he’d excelled at his small rural high school, he failed his first college quiz while classmates from more privileged backgrounds sailed through. “I was like, holy cow. Whoa.” His grades have since recovered.

Related: Rural schools join forces to make college the rule rather than the exception

Setbacks like that perpetuate some of the many stereotypes that rural students say they face in college.

“Some people think rural places do lean toward conservative, which is very true, but also that people aren’t very smart,” said Dobrowalski, who is majoring in biology, psychology and neuroscience and plans to go to medical school. “They expect a yee-haw,” Russell said. “They expect me to be some extreme bigot.” Said Lance Schwiderson, a freshman who came to Ann Arbor from a high school in Au Gres, Michigan with 55 students in his graduating class: The people who he’s met in college “always seem to think that I’m Republican. And poor. And a farmer.”

But there are genuine differences that make life hard on campus for rural students in ways many other people may not consider.

One is financial. The fifth of seven children of a mother who works part time as a secretary and a father who has had jobs in a local power plant and golf course and as a welder, Goodman, who is majoring in astrophysics, said she can’t afford to go out for meals with her roommates. “Typically I do homework” alone instead, she said, adding wryly: “I’m doing a lot of homework.”

Schwiderson also chafes at the socioeconomic divide at the University of Michigan, where the median family income of students is $156,000, or three times the state average, according to the Harvard-based think tank Opportunity Insights. Ten percent come from families in the top 1 percent of earners, and only 16 percent from the bottom 60. “Everybody else has got the coin that I don’t have. Those Canada Goose jackets? You’re kidding,” Schwiderson said, referring to the brand of parkas other Michigan students wear, which cost up to $1,550. “I’m walking down the road and I see people with Gucci or Versace.”

As a student from a tiny rural hometown, Kendra Beaudoin found unexpected obstacles when she arrived last year at the University of Michigan. She had to use a paper map to find her way around after losing her phone, couldn’t figure out the bus system and didn’t understand crosswalks. “Those aren’t a thing where I live.” Credit: Diane Weiss for The Hechinger Report

That’s about more than fashion, said Kendra Beaudoin, a sophomore from Lake Linden, Michigan, population 1,007 and 10 hours north of Ann Arbor. It’s a symbol of how some people come from families with the resources to help them overcome the complexities of college, while others don’t. “It’s almost like a sense of entitlement. Some students, they’re comfortable, they’re relaxed, they’re okay with talking back to the teachers or arguing a grade. I’m still intimidated by professors. Going to office hours is terrifying. There were definitely moments when I was like, I’m only going here to fill a diversity quota and I don’t really belong here and everybody else is so much smarter than me.”

Beaudoin is the daughter of a single mother and helped raise her four younger siblings, leaving little time for the college search that can consume some more privileged students’ entire careers in high school. “I had no idea what financial aid meant. I thought undergrad was the first two years and graduate school was junior and senior year. I really just didn’t know anything,” she said during a break between classes.

Prodded by a classmate’s parents who, unlike her mother, went to college, Beaudoin became determined to get a four-year degree; she’s now majoring in biopsychology, cognition and neural science and has cofounded a club for first-generation students to give each other moral support and advice.

“I saw my mom struggling with having to pay the bills or take care of the kids,” she said. “I also just didn’t really like staying home all the time, and raising my siblings, I guess. Not that I don’t like my siblings. But I just wanted something more.”

Other obstacles are more mundane. Take crosswalks. “Those aren’t a thing where I live,” said Beaudoin, who stops and waits for the light to change while other pedestrians brush past her. When her phone broke, she used a paper map to find her way around the campus. She still has trouble figuring out the bus system. Yet, as someone from a rural place where self-sufficiency is valued, “The idea of going to someone and asking how this works … it was almost like I felt bad for not knowing.”

Freshman Lance Schwiderson, who came from a rural town with 55 students in his high school graduating class, meets with his mentor at the University of Michigan. He says he runs into stereotypes about rural people from his classmates. “They always seem to think that I’m Republican. And poor. And a farmer.” Credit: Diane Weiss for The Hechinger Report

Universities have been slow to recognize these hurdles. “There’s still some way to go here,” said Gail Gibson, director of the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program, at the University of Michigan, which next year will add scholarships and academic support exclusively for up to 20 students (plans call for five to 10 at the outset) from the state’s predominantly rural Upper Peninsula.

Related: How one tiny town is battling ‘rural brain drain’

One reason is that faculty and staff don’t often realize that rural students, who are predominantly white, need the extra help. “If you are an instructor in a class looking out, you cannot identify [a first-generation rural student] in the way you might say, well, I have an African-American student in this class or I have a student of Muslim identity in this class. So we start there,” said Gibson. “What the student is experiencing in a classroom situation or in a dorm situation may or may not be visible.”

That’s why some universities are starting to add not just financial aid, but special preparation, mentors and other support for rural students.

There are other reasons universities are suddenly addressing this group. One is self-interest. As the number of 18- to 24-year-olds declines, and a robust economy draws more people straight into the workforce, enrollment at universities and colleges has fallen by 2.9 million since its last peak in 2011. Institutions need to find more students, and rural America has an underutilized supply.

Another is political. “If we want to increase conversations across party lines and ideologies, we have to be exposed to one another,” said Ardoin. “As you look at this urban, rural, suburban divide that was so evident in the recent election, it seems to me that we in higher education had better be thinking about how do we bring together young people from these different backgrounds to a place where they can hopefully have civil discourse,” added Trachte, the Lycoming president.

That assumes these rural students will return home, something few said they expect to do — even if they want to. “I’d have this degree and want to do something with it, but there’s not really too much of an opportunity to,” said Beaudoin. “I always tell myself I never want to go back there,” said Dobrowalski. “When you grew up in a small town, people get a very closed mindset. At least that’s what I’ve seen.”

Schwiderson didn’t even want to go home for his winter break, he told his mentor. “I don’t want to be back in small-town America,” he said, in a Niagara Falls hoodie, sweatpants and high-top sneakers with colored polka-dots. “It’s right that a lot of people from rural towns are conservative, and that’s not me so I don’t love going home and butting heads with people who never leave and never open themselves up to something different. They’re just going to stay on the same farm their whole life with the same values and do the same thing. I’m just trying to experience everything.”

Russell’s take was more nuanced. “I told my mom over the summer before I came here, I said, ‘Mom I think this was my last year in Crowley,’” he said. “And that made me cry thinking about it, because I love where I’m from and I’m going to miss my family. But if I want a career and what I want to do and I want to succeed, I have to leave.”

This story about rural college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired,

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