When I was a student at Dartmouth, recruiting and admitting first-generation college students (which Dartmouth defines as students whose parents do not hold 4-year degrees) was an institutional priority. Our president at the time, Jim Wright, had been the first in his own family to attend college, and he recognized the barriers first-gen students face in gaining entrance to any college, let alone the nation’s elite institutions. With the extra effort and attention paid by the admissions office, these students made up about 13% of each class in the latter years of Wright’s tenure. When he retired and was succeeded by President Jim Yong Kim, the first-gen population fell to around 9% of the class. It was a tragedy.
I’ve always had a difficult time articulating my collegiate search and experience as a first-generation student at Dartmouth, one of the world’s top universities. But in an op-ed published today in the New York Times (online yesterday), Claire Vaye Watkins eloquently gives voice to the process in which rural poor students select – or don’t select – the colleges they attend. I went to Dartmouth because it came back as the top match on Princeton Review’s “Counselor-o-Matic” (now defunct, it seems, though there are numerous similar tools available), and because my sister had a friend who went there. When I interviewed for an internship at the admissions office my junior year, and again when I interviewed for the assistant director position, I conveyed my excitement to have the opportunity to recruit students like me – a notoriously difficult population to reach. But then President Wright retired, and, well…
Anyway, a couple things stand out from this article. The first is that Watkins was able to attend the University of Nevada, Reno on a state-sponsored scholarship. Even though she started there just 8 years ago, the financial access poor students have to higher education has dropped precipitously since then. To wit, Arizona has cut higher education funding an inflation-adjusted 50.4% compared to FY 2008. New Hampshire (live free or die) is next at 49.9%. Watkins’ home state of Nevada has reduced funding 31.2% over that period; in fact, 36 states have decreased funding more than 20%, and only two states, Wyoming and North Dakota, have increased funding since 2008 (all according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). Meanwhile, Paul Ryan wants to freeze Pell Grants, an incredibly important resource for poor students, at their current level for the next ten years.
The other thing I want to point out is a reader comment that, though I didn’t grow up in rural Appalachia, perfectly captured one of my reactions to this article, and something I’ve known for a long time:
As someone who grew up in rural Appalachia and hit the lottery by getting into the Ivy League, where I soon realized I was the “token” rural kid and felt incredibly isolated and misunderstood by my prep-school colleagues, I’ve been waiting years for someone to write a column like this, though never expected it would be done so well. Thank you for raising awareness about something that every American rural teenager already knows, but no one in NYC or any other large metropolitan era seems to have ever considered: Geography is destiny.
I welcome any reactions you might have to this post or Watkins’ article.
Dartmouth’s admitted group this year includes 11% first-generation students, and 68% of admitted students qualify for financial aid with an average scholarship of $40,000. Still, rural poor kids are being left behind on a national scale.