Creating a College Culture Nationwide: Big Vision in a Small Town

Imagine this: You’re a 16-year-old high school student scraping by with a C average. Your parents never went to college and it’s the last thing on the minds of the kids you spend most of your time with. But then you decide to pursue a degree - and figure out how to raise your GPA, find financial aid, and get accepted to the institution that’s just right for you.

If you’re a low-income student from rural America, sadly, you need to beat the odds to realize that dream. Only 27 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds from rural areas enroll in higher education, and nationally only 11 percent of students from the families in the bottom economic quartile graduate from four-year colleges. As the head of an organization that has worked with more than 40,000 rural students, I recognize that low achievement and high college costs are part of the problem. But there’s another challenge that gets far less attention: Too many students from rural communities never develop the aspiration to go to college.

Case in point: Five years ago John Pollock of Willsboro, New York was a mediocre student who hadn’t even considered higher education. When a teacher encouraged him to buckle down academically and think about college he faced ridicule from peers who told him it was a waste of time. Fortunately a mentor convinced him to press on, with daily urgings to study, weekly reminders to sign up for the ACT and SAT, and extensive hands-on help in finding financial aid.

Today John is a college junior with a 3.62 GPA. He’s proud of what he has accomplished but asserts “there’s no way I could have done this without lots of help from other people. My mentor pushed and pushed me to do better – to stop settling for average and raise my own standards.”

Rick Dalton is President and CEO of College for Every Student.

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