One of the most e-mailed items in the New York Times for the past day or so has been Claire Vaye Watkins “The Ivy League Was Another Planet.” (The alternative headline is “Elite Colleges Are As Foreign as Mars.”) In her op-ed, Watkins recounts her journey from nonmetropolitan Pahrump, Nevada to college at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her story is that of a kid from a working class family in “rural” Nevada (her description; technically, Pahrump is not rural because, though unincorporated, its 2010 population is more than 35,000) who didn’t know about colleges or how to pick one. Lucky for her, Watkins went on to get an MFA from Ohio State and is now an assistant professor of English at Bucknell.
Watkins writes of getting her wake-up call about dramatic variations in educational resources when she was a high school senior, vying for a prestigious state-funded scholarship. That’s when she met a peer from a Las Vegas high school who attended a magnet school, took college prep courses, had a tutor, and had spent time abroad. The variations in resources, she realized, were based on geography: he was an urban kid and she was a rural one. But they were also based on class. She doesn’t specify the background of the Vegas teen, but she mentions that her mother and step-father had not gone to college. I note that Pahrump’s poverty rate is a fairly steep 21.1%. Just 10.1% of residents there have a bachelor’s degree or better, compared to about 30% nationwide.
Even after meeting the privileged teen from Vegas, however, Watkins didn’t know what she didn’t know. She remained ignorant of the world of elite colleges, a sector that represented the “other planet” or “Mars” of the headline. Instead, Watkins applied to UN Reno, she explains, because she had once taken a Greyhound bus to visit friends there. As Watkins expresses it, when poor rural kids apply to college (which, I might add, is altogether too rare), they typically apply to those institutions to which they have been “incidentally exposed.”
Commenting on what admissions deans at elite schools might do to reach out to poor rural kids–whom they purport to be interested in for reasons of diversity and excellence–Watkins suggests, tongue in cheek, that they do “anything.” More specifically, Watkins cleverly contrasts Ivy League efforts to recruit rural kids, which might be characterized by the terms “zip” and “nada,” with military efforts to recruit the same kids, which might be characterized as “fulsome” and “robust.” Guess who’s winning that contest? The military, of course. Here are just a few of the points Watkins makes:
- No college rep ever showed up at Pahrump Valley High school, while the military brought a stream of alums through there on a regular basis.
- The school devoted half a day each year to ensuring that every junior took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB); that test was free, while taking the ACT and SAT was not.
- “But the most important thing the military did was walk kids and their families through the enlistment process.”
Watkins closes by noting that elite colleges need for Ivy League institutions to do more to reach those she calls “the rural poor,” concluding that, until they do, “is it any wonder that students in Pahrump and throughout rural America are more likely to end up in Afghanistan than at N.Y.U.?”
The apparent prompt for Watkins’ op-ed is a recent paper by two profs (from Harvard and Stanford, no less), Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students.” That paper was publicized in the Times last week-end in David Leonhardt’s story, “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor.” The summary and conclusions of the Hoxby and Avery paper do not talk about rural-urban difference in relation to these missing “one-offs. (They do, however, display some geographical nuance in Table 9, listing two categories of “rural” students, those near an urban area and those far from one). Instead, Hoxby and Avery focus on the benefits to students of being in “geographic concentrations of high achievers.” They write in their abstract, for example, that these high-achieving students who fail to apply to elite schools
come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college.
And where might those students be? mostly in rural schools. For folks like Watkins, it isn’t hard to read between the lines and see that the high achievers most likely to slip between the cracks are kids in rural schools.
All of this brings to me my own experience. Like Watkins, I can see that many of the students Hoxby and Avery are talking about are rural. My own K-12 school in rural Arkansas had an enrollment of about 400–and no counselor whatsoever to advise on college admissions. The first Ivy League graduates I ever met were my professors at the University of Arkansas. I was there because, like many who Hoxby and Avery studied, I assumed it was the best bargain for me. I didn’t apply elsewhere.
I have to trust that the numerous people reading Watkins’ tale will believe her revelations of her naiveté regarding college. I certainly hope so, though I have been struck over the years at how many people are incredulous at my similar tale. How, they marvel, disbelief in their voices, could you not have known to go to a “good school”? People of privilege can find it remarkably difficult to believe that other people could really not know the things that are the very intellectual and emotional wall-paper of a life of privilege.
But there is another, related problem: poor rural kids and the diversity they represent often go unvalued by educational decision makers. Because these rural kids Watkins is talking about are often white, they don’t appear, at first blush, to represent diversity. Plus, I find privileged whites are just as uncomfortable around working class whites as they are around people of color–maybe more so in this day and age. That discomfort–unmitigated by the need be politically correct because no PC imperative exists regarding poor whites–may deter the privileged from reaching out to recruit poor whites. After all, as Watkins points out, it’s not like these elite colleges are hurting for applicants.
Finally, privileged metropolitan and cosmopolitan types tend to hold the limitations of rural education against those who are products of it, discounting what these kids have achieved because of the absence of AP classes, the “right” extracurricular activities, and such. (Read more here and here; Mitchell Stevens wrote of this as the rural New England valedictorian phenomenon in his book, Creating A Class). I recall being on the selection committee for the first round of elite Sturgis Fellows at the University of Arkansas in the late 1980s. When I spoke up for a candidate with what I considered to have stellar credentials, a professor on the selection committee quickly countered by noting that the student was from a rural school, suggesting that the student’s achievements had to be kept in proper perspective–namely that s/he had not been subjected to true intellectual rigor. I recall meekly pointing out that I, too–the University of Arkansas’s undergraduate valedictorian–was the product of a rural school. What was I? chopped liver? or just an anomaly? I’ll never know how the selection committee saw me. But perhaps because I protested so meekly, my comment–and the outstanding rural candidate–got no traction. All of that inaugural group of Sturgis Fellows, as I recall it, were from sizable high schools.