December 13, 2022
Growing up, I often heard from my parents that I needed to “get out of here.” And I did get out, from Ohio’s Appalachian foothills to a university near Cincinnati. Not far in terms of miles, but light-years in lifestyle.
My trajectory from a trailer park in a small town to a two-story house in a subdivision was tenuous, but ultimately successful. For many students in Appalachia, though, college is an impossible dream. The rate of bachelor’s degree attainment or higher in rural, Appalachian Ohio is 18.6 percent, compared to 31 percent for non-Appalachian Ohio. This trend reflects the national dynamic between rural students and college-going.
Yet this is in an era when demand for college graduates is soaring. While many factors play into this relative lack of rural postsecondary education, there are concrete, commonsense policies that school districts can put in place to change it, including increasing high school rigor and providing more Advance Placement and dual-enrollment courses.
My own journey was difficult. I wasn’t prepared. Even though I scored well on the ACT exam and took the most advanced courses my high school offered, in my first semester of college I was placed on academic probation. In addition to the academic challenges, managing the financial burdens of living independently left me with limited time to catch up.
I did make it through to graduation, though, and went on to graduate school. The reason? Luck. I got a union job that offered consistent hours and benefits. I found a landlord who gave me a discount on rent and had a family member near the college that supported me financially and emotionally.
Remove any one of those girders and I would have ended up in a much different place.
In other areas of Ohio, having the academic readiness and supports to persist in college is not based on luck. It’s systemic. My home county is one of five in Appalachian Ohio designated as “economically distressed,” meaning that we have significantly higher rates of poverty and unemployment and a lower median family income relative to U.S. averages.