c/o Google Maps

c/o Google Maps

During the summer after her junior year of high school, Allison McGlone ’19 and her dad drove over 1,300 miles from their home in Lone Jack, Mo. to visit Wesleyan. She was determined to attend the best school she could get into and had found Wesleyan—and information about its financial aid packages—on Forbes’ college rankings. McGlone knew that she was on her own, though. Her guidance counselors knew nothing about out-of-state schools, and neither did her parents.

The trip to Wesleyan was McGlone’s first time east of the Mississippi River and the farthest she had ever been from home. While she grew up in a few small towns in Missouri, she spent her high school years in Lone Jack, a town of 1,200 southeast of Kansas City. When she went to college, her parents moved 15 miles away to Kingsville, which has a population of 200.

McGlone is one of a small number of students who come to Wesleyan every year from rural areas, communities that, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget, have fewer than 10,000 residents. I spoke to six of these driven, self-motivated students from all class years to hear about how they got to Wesleyan and how it feels to exist on a campus that is dominated by urbanites—students from New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco.

Many of them first-generation and low-income, these students faced a lack of information about the admissions process and financial aid offerings at elite schools. Coming to Wesleyan, they faced another set of challenges: cultural differences and feelings of alienation and tokenization.

But Wesleyan faces just as many challenges in reaching these students and then supporting them when they get to campus. Part of a growing trend of colleges interested in recruiting students from rural areas, Wesleyan has turned to partnerships with other colleges and nonprofits to reach them.

 

“It wasn’t even the blind leading the blind; it was just me.” 

The students I spoke with described a lack of information about college admissions available to them when they were applying to college. Most of the students’ guidance counselors knew little, if anything, about the Common Application or the ins and outs of financial aid. Their families did not have the financial resources nor the educational backgrounds to shepherd them through the process, and the college representatives who visited their high schools were from community colleges or state schools, whose application processes and financial aid materials differ from those of schools like Wesleyan.

With this gap in resources and information, rural students who want to attend elite colleges are usually forced to bridge the gap themselves, learning about the admissions process and financial aid on their own.

“I was all on my own, trying to figure out what all of this meant,” McGlone said.

When McGlone told her school’s counselors that she wanted to go to an out-of-state school, they told her that she wouldn’t be able to afford it. McGlone started researching schools online and discovered that some, like Wesleyan, offer need-based aid and meet 100 percent of the demonstrated need of admitted students. Finding out that some schools make it financially possible for all admitted students to attend was a revelation.

 

High-achieving, undermatching

The great lengths McGlone and the other students I spoke with had to undergo just to apply to college shows the lack of support and information available to students from rural areas. Because of this lack of information about college admissions, which students in more resource-rich areas get from counselors, teachers, and family members, students from rural areas do not apply to selective colleges nearly as much as their urban peers. In a 2012 study, Professor in Economics at Stanford University Caroline Hoxby and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School Christopher Avery found that 70 percent of high-achieving, low-income students who are applying to elite colleges come from just 15 urban areas. So, to what colleges are high-achieving, low-income students from rural areas applying?

According to a 2014 study conducted by Professor of Higher Education and Leadership and Educational Studies at Appalachian State University Andrew Koricich, students from non-metro areas are less likely to attend four-year institutions, private and selective colleges, and institutions that confer graduate degrees.

Admissions professionals and researchers use the term “undermatching” to describe the low rate at which high-achieving students from underrepresented backgrounds apply to and attend these schools. When narrowed to students from rural communities, undermatching describes the phenomenon of high-achieving rural students not applying to elite schools. These students instead apply to community colleges and state schools, which typically have lower graduation rates and worse financial aid offerings compared to those of schools like Wesleyan. In the worst cases of undermatching, students could go to a local college, not graduate, and then spend years paying off loans.

Undermatching is generally attributed to a lack of information about college and the application process, but it also has to do with the apparent inability of rural schools to prepare students for elite colleges.

At schools like McGlone’s Lone Jack High School, taking lower-level courses is not a choice; it’s the only option. According to a report published by the University of New Hampshire, 47.2 percent of rural school districts offer no Advanced Placement (AP) classes, compared to 5.4 percent of suburban districts, and 2.6 percent of urban districts. Moreover, even if rural districts do offer AP courses, students in these districts are less likely to enroll in them than in suburban and urban districts. Therefore, students in rural areas are less likely to experience college-level coursework and gain college credit during high school, further distancing a college education. For McGlone, who didn’t know how to write an essay before coming to Wesleyan, she feels like she’s had to play catch-up to be on par with her classmates.

Katie Livingston ’21, a transfer student from Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. and an incoming Argus editor, felt the anxieties of undermatching during her first year of school. Livingston grew up outside Lawton and was homeschooled in high school. She knew that she wanted to go to a good school, but like McGlone, she received little support. Both of her parents grew up in Oklahoma and went to Cameron, so it was a natural choice.

Livingston spent her first year at Cameron troubled by her classmates’ job prospects. She saw that her degree in English would most likely lead her to a low-paying job close to home.

“I saw it as a black hole,” she said. “I was afraid of getting sucked into it and then not having a degree that was marketable outside that community and having to stay there for the rest of my life.”

Like McGlone, Livingston had no idea that she would be able to afford to attend an elite college when she began the transfer process. She thought she would have to pay full tuition, and even when she found out about opportunities for need-based aid, her mom told her that these packages were scams, money that she would have to repay.

Wesleyan’s Dean of Admission Nancy Meislahn herself comes from a rural community, hailing from a town of 2,000 in western New York. In an interview with The Argus, Meislahn spoke about how, even if students from rural areas know about elite colleges and want to apply, they may not know that these schools offer need-based aid—or that universities like Wesleyan even want students from these communities.

“These are elite schools, but they aren’t necessarily elitist,” she said. “And there’s a real difference there in terms of inclusion and support.”

The issue of undermatching for rural students indicates a lack of resources and information about college admissions. Students stick with what they know, and if all that their counselors and teachers know are the schools in the area, students are more likely to apply to these local schools than schools like Wesleyan.

 

Partnering up, reaching out 

Wesleyan, like many of its peer schools, is interested in creating a student body that has—or appears to have—as much diversity as possible. A large piece of this is geographic diversity. While Wesleyan does not track the types of communities students come from, they do track their regions. Over the past four admissions cycles (data for the class of 2023 has not been released yet), students from the South and Mid-West have made up only 12-13 percent of the student body.

“I think people have different experiences that they bring to their education,” President Michael Roth ’78 said of the value of a geographically diverse student body. “When people have different experiences, they have different ideas, and they will challenge one another and expand the thinking of their peers…. If everyone comes from [Ethical Culture Fieldston School], as broad as the school is, there is a kind of narrowness.”

The main barriers to recruiting rural students are time and money. According to Meislahn, the most expensive component of the Office of Admission’s recruitment efforts is travel. Because cities are where the largest concentrations of students are, it’s most efficient for deans to concentrate their efforts there, so they can visit multiple schools and speak to dozens of applicants in a day.

Mail campaigns help to reach students who cannot meet with Wesleyan representatives. Wesleyan uses data provided by the College Board to send informational material to high-achieving students across the country, so some of this material gets into the hands of rural students.

Partnerships with organizations like Questbridge, which partners with 40 elite colleges to “match” first-generation, low-income students to member institutions, also go a long way in reaching and recruiting students in rural areas.

Two students I spoke with are Questbridge Scholars: Jasmine Jason ’20, who came to Wesleyan from Mountain View, Ark., and Josh Reed ’21, who is from New Cordell, Okla. (Coincidentally, Reed and Livingston both won an essay-writing contest in high school that took them on a trip to D.C., so they knew each other before coming to campus.)

Jason found Questbridge when she looked up national programs that would help her gain admission to schools with generous financial aid. In contrast, Reed’s sister attended a boarding school in Oklahoma City and was a Questbridge finalist, so he knew about the program before he began looking at schools.

Other programs that Wesleyan has partnered with are the Coalition Application, which partners with 142 member institutions to provide a dedicated college search and application portal for low-income students, and a project run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) and the College Board that partners with colleges and sends targeted mailings to students who are deemed most likely to undermatch. These programs aim to get information about financial aid offerings and the value of a college education to the students who need it most.

Meislahn emphasized the role of partnerships, both among colleges and with nonprofit organizations, in reaching students from rural areas. With the institutional weight (and money) backing accessibility initiatives, these programs and the materials they provide can go a long way in getting information about elite colleges in front of students.

These initiatives are also addressing the downsides of undermatching. Meislahn notes that, undermatched students most often attend schools with low graduation rates; for instance, at Cameron University, where Livingston spent her first three semesters, only nine percent of students graduate within four years. Students who attend Wesleyan, on the other hand, are almost certain to graduate.

“So much of this, in addition to the affordability and financial aid piece, is this issue of retention,” she said. “If you come to a COFHE school, a Coalition school, a Wesleyan, you’re going to graduate…. It’s getting this information in the pipeline to reach these kids so that they know it’s affordable.”

 

Culture shock

After navigating the application process on their own, students from rural areas must also contend with a dramatic cultural shift as they leave communities that send few students to out-of-state schools to a school where over half of the student body is not on financial aid. Most of the students I spoke with commented on students’ clothing, speech patterns, and manners—or lack thereof—as contributing to a kind of culture shock.

When Haden Lambert ’22 got up in front of his introductory anthropology class and read his paper about the rituals of his town’s annual deer hunting season, he was met with some weird looks.

Lambert came to Wesleyan from Tomah, Wis., a small town in the southwestern part of the state with a population of just over 9,000. His parents, grandparents, and great grandparents all live on the same road, and his family has been living in the area since the 1800s. Neither of his parents went to college, so he had to do the whole application process on his own. When he applied to Wesleyan, he received his acceptance early, with an offer to pay for his flights so he could visit campus.

Now finished with his first year, he says that some students have labeled him a “country boy,” a persona he didn’t have at home.

“Where I’m from, I was defined in opposition to the country boys—the ones who flew confederate flags on their pickup trucks and did burnouts in the parking lot,” he said. “Those were the country boys. But here, people see me as the country boy, so that was a weird identity thing that I had to face.”

He also spoke about the differences in experiences and resources he detected when meeting other students.

“I would try to stay away from talking about academics with people,” he said. “They would talk about these weird programs they did in high school and camps they did, but I didn’t have that. I’ve worked on a farm every summer since I was 12.”

McGlone expressed a tokenization she feels as a student from a rural area surrounded by students from cities. She sometimes feels like she’s at Wesleyan to educate city kids about rural America.

“I definitely bring a different perspective here,” she said. “What’s been most aggravating the past few years, though, is that it feels like I’m an experience for other people, and then they get to move on.”

The feelings of difference that these students experience at Wesleyan translate to similar feelings when they return to their hometowns. The students I spoke with expressed a kind of dissonance they experience when they go back to their small towns.

“It feels like two different people,” McGlone said. “I don’t notice it when I’m here for a long time or when I’m there for a long time, but the switch back and forth, I can hear myself talking differently or see myself dressing differently. I think because I came into this place feeling so intimidated by it, I felt the need to conform in a certain way, but at home I don’t feel any of that…. Feeling that imposter syndrome here and then none of that at home is interesting.”

Livingston expressed feeling a similar type of dissonance when she returns to her deeply religious family.

“Oh, they’re definitely not happy that I’m here,” she said about her family. “I don’t fall in line with my parents’ religious ideologies, and they don’t like that. And I think that me being here makes them think that they have less control over my religious ideologies, or a chance to convert me back.”

She spoke about her parents becoming upset when she told them that she was dating an agnostic person. She says they fear she’s being indoctrinated.

“Coming here was hard because I was not only working against Wesleyan’s systems to get here, I was working against my family and the culture I was coming from, which was telling me not to come here,” Livingston said.

Lambert also expressed misgivings about his decision to attend Wesleyan. His father works in construction, and Lambert wonders whether going to a trade school like many of his high school classmates would’ve been better for him.

“I like [Wesleyan], but I don’t know if the liberal arts experience is for me,” Lambert said. “There’s another part of me that wishes I went to a trade school, just because that’s what I grew up around.”

 

What’s Fieldston?

Besides recognizing the cultural differences that exist between them and their peers, many of the students I spoke with discussed the presence of networks of students who come from the same city—networks they don’t have. These networks don’t arise just because students are from the same city; they come from the annual admission of students from the same private or elite public high schools in places like New York and LA. Since students at these schools are connected through mutual friends and extra-curricular activities, they can come to Wesleyan already having a group of students they’ve known for years.

“My girlfriend comes from a completely different background than I do,” Josh Rode ’19, a film major from Heath, Mass., said. “Since she went to a New York private high school, she’d be like, ‘Oh, that person when to Fieldston, that person went to Dalton, that person went to Trinity, that person went to Riverdale,’ and it’s like, you hear all these names and realize that so many of these people are connected in these webs…. Sometimes it’s not even high school, it’s just that people went to the same summer camp.”

Rode’s hometown has fewer than 700 residents. He commuted to University of Massachusetts Amherst for a semester, transferred to nearby Greenfield Community College for a year, and then came to Wesleyan. He said that many of his classmates at his small regional high school didn’t have their sights set on college.

The fact that, just by virtue of being from a certain socioeconomic class or attending a certain high school, students can come to campus not only having the academic skills to succeed, but also social connections to similar kinds of students, can be intimidating for students whose high schools didn’t send anyone else out of state. With almost half of Wesleyan’s student body coming from a private high school, Rode can’t help but think that these students already have a leg up on people like him before getting to campus.

“There’s definitely this thinking that I go through that if you went to this private school before you came here, you’re probably more bound for success here than I am coming from my high school,” Rode said. “That’s something I think a lot of people don’t talk about here or don’t necessarily realize.”

 

Band-Aid vs. big-picture

Once students from rural areas get to Wesleyan, there are no formal support systems dedicated to them. Schools like University of Michigan and University of Georgia offer special advising and mentorship programs for students from rural areas, but Wesleyan has yet to create these kinds of initiatives. There are identity collectives for low-income and first-generation students, but none dedicated to students with these identities who also come from rural areas.

Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Whaley is one administrator tasked with making campus more inclusive of underrepresented experiences. He spoke of the differences between what he calls “Band-Aid solutions” to issues of inclusion and broader, big-picture ways of reimagining the University from the perspective of underrepresented students. He said that, when thinking about making rural students feel more comfortable on campus, solutions that will help other minority groups will help them too.

“It’s better when we talk about a fundamental restructuring of the meal plans, say, thinking from the lens of a low-income student, what we’ll come up with will be better for everybody,” he said.

While the University has no plans in the works for a dedicated rural student support network, Whaley is confident in the work that his office and many others are doing to reimagine the University and its various programs—New Student Orientation, for example—from the perspective of students who need the most support.

Both Whaley and Meislahn stressed that, while students from rural areas may feel out of their element or that there are no other students like them, there most certainly are—and that they may have more in common with urban students than they think.

“We often say to first-year students, ‘You may think that everyone has it together and isn’t having any challenges,’ but that’s not the reality,” Whaley said. “Even if you know how to play the game, this is a different playing field when you get here.”

 

“Hick at heart”

McGlone, who graduated in May with a degree in government and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies, was nervous about graduation weekend, but not because she was nervous about leaving campus. Her biggest fear was that people would judge her parents at graduation.

“My dad is such a country man,” she said, laughing. “He has this big beard and wears camo and overalls all the time. And I know that he and my mom are going to talk in accents. I think it’s crazy that this divide between my home and here is going to come together at graduation.”

She plans to move to Washington, D.C. for a 10-month position with AmeriCorps promoting literacy in underserved school districts. She would love to move back to a small town after her time in Washington.

As she finished her time at Wesleyan, McGlone reflected on the challenges and insecurities she has overcome as a student from a rural area and the confidence she’s gained. She also spoke of the friends she’s made—people who appreciate and even share her “geographically diverse” background.

“I think for the first two years here, I felt like I didn’t belong,” she said. “And it’s only been recently that I’ve seen that I’m the only one who thinks that. I have agency over whether or not I belong here.”

 

William Halliday can be reached at whalliday@wesleyan.edu.

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