Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: Postcards: High expectations, and those who failed to meet them.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: A new rural agenda & mental health funds.
  • 03: In the Sticks: The needs beyond just tuition.

01: Postcards

This week, Open Campus and EdSource published the story of Rafael, a son of farm workers in the Central Valley of California who dreamed of attending a four-year university.

To sum it up, it’s a story about one student’s high expectations for himself, and the people who didn’t share them: The educators that put him on a non-university path, the public charter school that never questioned it, and the state that keeps funding schools with low graduation rates and little accountability.

I encourage you to read the piece, which digs deep into a number of issues, from the challenging education journeys of migrant families like Rafael’s to the challenges California faces in applying accountability to independent learning programs like the Learn4Life charter school chain.

For now, here are four takeaways from my reporting.

1. The crisis of rural advising.

I first heard about some of the challenges Rafael was facing through a colleague, who had heard from a source about a Madera student who said his high school counselor hadn’t ever met with him until just a few months before graduation.

There are, of course, countless stories of rural advising shortages across the country. But Rafael’s experience seemed particularly troublesome, especially when the advisor told me that he didn’t keep any documents of his interactions with students and couldn’t tell me where, when, or even if he had ever met with Rafael prior to that meeting.

When Rafael finally did meet with his counselor, he learned he was way off the track for getting into a California public university. He had never been told about the state’s specific course requirements (called “A-G”) and had already missed key application deadlines. 

Initially, the counselor said he met with seniors every month of their fall semester. However, when pressed, he admitted that he may have been mistaken, citing his overwhelming caseload of 500+ students before another counselor was hired last October. 

“Realistically, I’m not going to lie, sometimes I do miss certain kids,” he said. 

2. ‘The soft bigotry of low expectations’

Individual counselors can’t shoulder all the blame for a system that has many woefully overworked: The national counselor-to-student ratio hovers around one counselor for every 415 students, far below the one for every 250 ratio the American School Counseling Association recommends. 

In California, that number was one for every 572 students in the 2020-21 school year, suggesting this isn’t a problem confined to rural areas or charter schools. 

Still, in Rafael’s case, there are reasons to believe much more could have been done to help him accomplish his education goals. Mistakes were made at every step of the process. 

Education officials mistook Spanish as his family’s native language (it was actually Triqui, an indigenous language from the Oaxaca region of Mexico). 

They even got his mother’s name wrong in the special education plan that set him on a non-university path, repeatedly describing a “Mrs. Gonzalez” who didn’t exist (her last name is actually Lopez). 

The truth is that nobody at Rafael’s independent learning school even considered that he might want to attend a four-year university, much less thought to ask him. After all, just four of the previous year’s 500-student cohort had graduated with the course requirements necessary to apply to a public university in California. 

Years later, educators cited his freshman year assessment when saying he wanted to be a barber or a mechanic. His counselor even suggested he put down “welding” as his future course of study and career goal, even though Rafael didn’t know what welding was at the time.

Unbeknownst to those charged with his education journey, Rafael’s ambitions for himself had changed after a 9th grade college road trip that had him hoping to attend a university. 

“I’m loath to quote George W Bush too often, but I think there is a legacy of ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ in this country,” says Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at the National College Access Network. 

Educational institutions looking to confront these low expectations must proactively incorporate efforts to reach out to and raise expectations in historically marginalized communities early in the education process, he says.

“It’s not just about understanding where the inequitable gaps are. It’s about then shifting practice to close them,” DeBaun says.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • The power of advisers. Margie Vandeven, Missouri’s commissioner of education, wrote an op-ed in U.S. News & World Report detailing how partnering with the rootED Alliance to put postsecondary advisers in rural schools helped boost college enrollment by as much as 14% at the participating schools. Missouri has since added $10 million in funding to expand the program to 135 rural high schools.
  • A new agenda for rural research? The National Rural Education Association (NREA) released a five-year research agenda that focuses on the challenges of deficit portrayals of rural people and poverty, while calling for greater attention to issues around mental health, inequitable funding, the rural workforce, and other policy solutions to leveraging the strengths of rural schools. 
  • When is resiliency toxic? Rural Assembly published this intriguing conversation with Scott Keoni Shigeoka, a University of Texas-Austin faculty member and author of the forthcoming Seek: How Curiosity Will Transform Your Life and Change the World. Shigeoka notes that focusing on how to make people resilient “without also focusing on infrastructure or systems” is problematic.

“Communities that are not the cause of the climate crisis are being told to be resilient. It puts the burden on them instead of on the very institutions that are [exacerbating] the consequences.”

  • Biden admin calls for apps addressing mental health. The White House is inviting applications for two grants totaling $280 million for increasing access to mental health services, specifically mentioning services for underserved communities including “multilingual learners and those from low-income backgrounds and in rural communities.” Two informational webinars for prospective applicants will take place, on October 12 and October 18.
The view along a California interstate (Photo/Nick Fouriezos)

03: In the Sticks

Continuing some of the themes from our article detailing Rafael’s education journey…

3. A trend spanning generations of farm worker families.

While I wasn’t able to include all their stories in the article, I heard similar stories from many Oaxacans in the Central Valley, with students as far back as two decades ago being encouraged to attend independent learning programs that wouldn’t set them on a university path.

Elsa Mejia, who last year became the first indigenous Oaxacan elected to Madera’s city council, was one of them. 

In the mid-2000s, her adviser told her she had to transfer to an independent study school after falling behind. She pushed back, catching up through summer school and after-school classes instead. 

Even then, Mejia says she and other students suspected that attending an alternative school would “make it impossible to be looked at by colleges.” The experience was one of many that made her feel isolated while navigating a system never designed for families like hers.

“A lot of times we feel like we are treated as if we are just more work.”

4. Needs extend far beyond just tuition

As Rafael told me, high school students from his community didn’t always have the luxury of thinking about their college dreams: in many cases, making money and helping pay their family’s bills had to take precedence over anything else.

“It was all Oaxacans talked about, Rafael thought: How to keep food on the table, keep the water on, keep a roof over their heads. When they graduated high school, they almost always went straight into farm work. Even the older student who had sworn to Rafael that he would one day leave Madera for UCLA.”

There is an improving awareness about the challenges that rural students face, from inconsistent internet connectivity at home and transportation challenges to food and housing insecurity. 

However, even when funds are set aside to help address those needs, there are significant roadblocks in attaining them, as many organizations, such as New America, are increasingly pointing out. 

Many of those issues are tied to processes that are overly cumbersome for students from communities that are already historically underserved, as I saw when writing about broadband grants in rural Georgia

It’s not enough to set aside funding: grant and scholarship providers must make sure their processes make that funding accessible to students like Rafael, who will otherwise continue struggling to reach their higher education goals.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.