In Rural America, Few People Harvest 4-Year Degrees

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jun 26 13:24:51 UTC 2007

  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*


Mattawa, Wash.

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 raising children.

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
catching up."

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 José 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

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 to

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 certificates.

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
attend class.

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 Bend.

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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