Language Barrier? In Rural America, Few People Harvest 4-Year Degrees
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Nov 8 14:02:27 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated November 3, 2006
In Rural America, Few People Harvest 4-Year Degrees. Big Bend Community
College tries to improve college enrollment and fight poverty as its
area's minority population grows
By SARA HEBEL
This wide, arid expanse of central Washington State is filled with rolling
rows of alfalfa, potatoes, and other crops, irrigated by the Columbia
River and its tributaries. Most of the fields have been harvested now but,
in the orchards, apples are ripe for the picking. The region's close ties
to the land and to the seasonal cycles of agriculture have long shaped its
economy, which, in turn, has defined its educational landscape. As in many
rural parts of the country, that picture is often bleak. Compared with the
nation as a whole, few jobs here require bachelor's degrees, and few
residents have earned them. Poverty rates are high. For many residents,
the prospect of attending college seems remote.
In Mattawa, a town of about 3,300 people tucked amid orchards, vineyards,
and fields at the southwestern edge of Grant County, the school district's
classrooms are swelling this fall as migrant families fill the town for
the apple harvest.
School administrators are trying to help their students with reading,
vocabulary, and other basic academic skills, despite a language barrier.
For more than half of the students here, Spanish is their first language.
More than four-fifths qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch
programs, and the students are often expected to contribute to their
families' incomes. Many of their parents never graduated from high school,
much less attended college, and the students are unfamiliar with the
application process for admissions or financial aid. Many are reluctant to
travel far from home; the nearest public colleges Big Bend Community
College, Yakima Valley Community College, and Columbia Basin College, and
Central Washington University are all about an hour's drive away.
Across Grant County, only about one in eight adults hold bachelor's
degrees. Residents' average annual per-capita income is close to $17,700,
about 34 percent below the statewide average.
Administrators at Big Bend Community College which includes Mattawa in
its service area are trying to reach beyond the nearly 2,700 students
enrolled there, to attract both traditional-age students and adults by
persuading them of the economic benefits of a college education. But many
residents must struggle to carve out the time and money needed for a
degree, or for work-force-training programs, as they juggle jobs and
Across the nation, rural populations as a whole have consistently lagged
behind the rest of the country in the proportion of adults holding
bachelor's degrees. The gap has widened slightly in the past decade,
according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. In 2000, 15.5 percent of
adults living outside of metropolitan areas held bachelor's degrees,
compared with 26.6 percent of adults in metropolitan areas.
Robert M. Gibbs, a regional economist in the Agriculture Department, says
many rural economies are beginning to slowly broaden beyond their historic
roots in occupations like farming and mining. But those areas, from
Appalachia and the Deep South to the Great Plains and Southwest, still do
not tend to offer the social or physical amenities needed to support rapid
growth in the number of knowledge-based jobs.
Compared with the rest of the nation, Mr. Gibbs says, "they're not really
Most rural populations have few colleges nearby, leaving residents without
the broad array of academic programs available to residents of more
densely populated urban and suburban areas.
The city of Seattle alone contains three public community colleges, the
University of Washington, and 10 private institutions. Students there can
take programs in subjects as varied as boat making, hotel-restaurant
management, and culinary arts, says Jos A. Esparza, coordinator of student
recruitment and outreach at Big Bend. His two-year college, whose service
area covers 4,600 square miles, offers 20 associate-degree programs and 13
certificate programs. But it does not provide offerings in some fields
that students often request, like dental hygiene, forensics, and interior
design. "Sometimes students will have to change what they want to do to
fit with what we have," he says.
Barriers to Preparation
In rural Washington, one of the challenges in improving the college-going
rate materializes at public elementary and secondary schools. Over the
past 15 years, Mattawa, for example, has seen rapid growth in its Hispanic
population. At the town's Wahluke High School, the racial composition of
the student body has gone from about 80 percent white to 20 percent
Hispanic in the early 1990s to the reverse proportion now. Gary Greene,
superintendent of the Wahluke School District, is focused on raising his
students' reading skills and college ambitions at an early age. Every
morning three second-graders show up at his office to read him their
favorite books. He makes sure that reading is taught for 90 minutes per
day from kindergarten through the eighth grade. By the 10th grade, he
notes, the district's students have begun to show marked improvements in
their standardized-test scores in reading.
But progress is slow. Mr. Greene struggles to compete with more densely
populated communities for good teachers who can speak Spanish. And gaps in
attendance among the district's migrant children, who make up more than
one-third of the students, lead them to lose much of what they learn. Mr.
Greene himself jumped in and out of schools as a youth, as part of a
migrant family that followed fruit and other crop harvests around the
state. The migrant life can also limit the college dreams of students.
Esteban Cabrera, an intervention specialist at Wahluke High School who
grew up as a migrant worker, says those students who are not legal
residents especially believe they do not have much of an educational
future. What's more, they may not have top grades in part because of their
inconsistent attendance and they are ineligible for federal and state
financial aid for college. "Some students are really bummed out about that
and ask, What's the use of me graduating?" he says.
Mr. Cabrera understands some of this struggle. When he was young, every
fall his work in the harvest would lead him to arrive at school a month
late, and each spring he would rise at 1 a.m. to help cut asparagus so he
could attend school. He was always behind, always tired, and his
grade-point average suffered. Even so, he was determined to pursue a
college degree. But, like many of his students now, "I wasn't sure how to
go about doing that," he recalls. Eventually he found his way to Yakima
Valley Community College. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree at
Central Washington and a master's degree in education at Heritage
University, a private institution near Yakima. Now Mr. Cabrera wants to
convince his students that there is a path to higher education for them,
too. He points students to private scholarships and makes sure they
consider short-term vocational programs and community colleges, which tend
to be less costly than four-year colleges. Only 28 percent of the senior
class in 2004-5 (the most recent figure available) went on to four-year
colleges, but 44 percent of the graduates planned to enroll at community
colleges. Dale Hedman, Wahluke's principal, says he tries to make the
economic significance of going to college clear: "We're trying to say to
them, This is your ticket away from the orchard."
Connecting to the Economy
The ability of higher education to open doors to better-paying jobs is
also central to what Big Bend counselors and administrators promote as
they seek to recruit greater numbers of the region's adults and
traditional-age college students. Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at the
National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, says such a
message is crucial for institutions in rural communities to communicate if
they hope to draw more students and better serve their regions. One of the
main barriers to college attainment in rural populations is that many
adults who earn a GED never go beyond that high-school-equivalency degree.
Before being able to take college courses for credit, those adults often
need to pay for at least a year of remedial study, he says. "That just
starts to add up," he says, "and is perceived as being too long of a road
He cites one program offered at Big Bend, and elsewhere in Washington, as
having promise for both attracting and retaining more residents who have
not traditionally pursued higher education. It seeks to help the state's
immigrant populations by allowing them to learn English as well as a
trade, like welding or commercial driving, simultaneously. The skills are
taught in the same classrooms during an intensive, 10- or 11-week program.
"We are seeing a population that otherwise would not walk through our
doors," says Sandy Cheek, Big Bend's director of basic skills. The
integrated programs are drawing many male Hispanic adults, who have been
underrepresented at the college, she says. More than one in five students
at the college are Hispanic, compared with almost 37 percent of the
population of the counties that Big Bend serves. Jose Cortes says the
opportunity to learn English and gain a commercial driver's license was
appealing because it held out the hope of a better life for him, his wife,
and their three children.
"I wanted to take a better job, and I was tired of working in the
orchards," says Mr. Cortes, 38, an immigrant from Mexico, where he had
gained a sixth-grade-level education. After completing the program, he
landed a job driving trucks and operating other equipment for a
construction company. He earns about $2,300 per month, more than twice
what he made in the orchards. "We can buy toys, clothes, and everything,"
he says. "This is the life that I seek." Across the state, the integrated
program's students have earned an average of five times more college
credits than English-language learners in traditional programs. They were
15 times as likely to complete their work-force training and earn
At Big Bend, 93 percent of the 29 students enrolled in the integrated
commercial-driving program in 2004-5 completed it and gained
certification, while none of the English-language learners in the
traditional programs did so. Thirty-four percent of the integrated
program's students made both reading and listening gains in their English
skills, almost twice as many as those in more-traditional programs. The
shortened time frame and practical nature of the integrated program, says
Ms. Cheek, make it "a really viable next step for them to take." In
deciding what vocations to offer through the integrated program, Big Bend
administrators say they wanted to train residents in jobs that are
available in the area and in occupations in which residents could envision
themselves. Even though the region could use more nursing assistants, for
example, many Hispanic male adults probably don't see themselves in that
role as easily as they might see themselves driving a truck, college
officials say. So the college first focused on building up programs in
fields like commercial driving and welding.
In terms of academic programs, rather than tailor them to prepare students
for specific jobs that might be locally available in the future, Big Bend
officials hope that increasing the general level of education among the
region's population will itself be a draw for new businesses. Another
factor driving the college's decisions about program offerings is the need
to find instructors to staff them. Like the administrators at the Wahluke
School District, Big Bend officials say they struggle to attract aspiring
faculty members. For those who are single, there isn't much of a dating
scene, and many of the area's social activities are family-oriented. For
couples, the problem is finding employment for their spouses. This fall
the college advertised for over a month for an instructor in the
integrated commercial-driving program and for one in the
integrated-welding program. But less than two weeks before those programs
were set to begin, no likely candidates had yet applied "goose eggs,"
says Kara Garrett, dean of education, health, and language skills. At the
last minute, she says, a qualified candidate for the commercial-driving
position "walked in off the street." To give him time for orientation, the
college delayed the program's start date by a week. The position for the
welding course still has not been filled on a permanent basis. The college
was able to start that program on time by finding a part-time instructor
to fill in for the fall quarter.
Patchwork of Programs
The college is accustomed to finding ways to plug gaps, whether in terms
of staff or of financial resources. This year the dean of arts and
sciences, Rachel Anderson, found out that a technical assistant who was
helping out in an evening program has a master's degree in marine biology.
She hired him to be a part-time mathematics instructor.
Administrators say they are almost constantly applying for federal, state,
and private grants and contracts, which make up about half of Big Bend's
budget, to patch together community services and aid programs. College
administrators just got word, for instance, that they will receive four
years of support from a federal education program to help migrant workers.
And a new state Opportunity Grant Program will allow the college to help
low-income students pay for such services as child care, allowing them to
Big Bend, like other colleges in rural areas around the country, also
offers programs to help students deal with distance. Students in some
far-flung communities can avoid drives to Big Bend of as much as two hours
each way by taking classes in an interactive, televised setting, with
their local classrooms linked by fiber-optic line to instruction at Big
The enrollment in those interactive classes and online courses has grown
to some 1,700 in 2005-6.
Still, distance education does not bridge all gaps. Many courses, from
welding to laboratory sciences, require hands-on training with an
instructor. And students who need extra help in any course often find it
easier to get assistance in person. Sometimes the region's residents find
that they just have to commit to a long drive if they are going to be able
to reach their educational and economic goals.
'Lots of Obstacles'
For the past year, Rosa Fabian has been driving her Oldsmobile 40 minutes
each way to a job-skills center in Moses Lake, where Big Bend is located,
to take information-technology classes that the college offers there.
She says she has wanted to further her education since 1989, when she came
to the United States from El Salvador, where she had finished a
high-school education. "I always loved to better myself, and it's always
been my wish to," she says. "But I found lots of obstacles."
Ms. Fabian, 45, is a single mother of two and, until a year ago, had not
gained legal status as a U.S. resident. She arrived in the United States
not knowing much English or how to drive.
She also didn't know how to go about enrolling in a college or
vocational-training program, until a friend told her about Big Bend's
information-technology offering. Now she expects to complete the program
in March, earning a certificate. She hopes to land a job in an office,
perhaps doing clerical work.
But for Ms. Fabian, as for so many other low-income residents here, the
path to a better education is still not easy. Her car died in October. She
replaced it with a used Chevrolet, with worn tires, managing to pay for it
with her income as a part-time cook's assistant.
The journey to her information-technology certificate may seem even longer
for Ms. Fabian once the freezing rains of a Washington winter begin to
fall. But she is determined to keep going, to finish her education, bad
tires or not.
Section: Government & Politics
Volume 53, Issue 11, Page A21
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