LETTER: Why rural students face unseen challenges in college


This letter to the editor was written by Noah Ochsner, freshman in agricultural communications and journalism. If you would like to write a letter to the Collegian, send us an email at letters@kstatecollegian.com or visit kstatecollegian.com/contact.

When I say “small town,” what do you think of? Manhattan? How many people do you think live in a small town? Less than 40,000 people?

What if I told you my entire county could fit inside Bramlage Coliseum and leave plenty of room?

I graduated from an incredibly small school in western Kansas: Greeley County High School in Tribune, Kansas.

My class had just under 20 people, which is average for that area. In fact, my high school wasn’t even the smallest in our athletic conference, and didn’t come close to the smallest in our region.

According to enrollment numbers for the 2017-2018 academic year from the Kansas State High School Activities Association, or KSHSAA, the smallest high school in the state is in Healy, Kansas, with a total co-ed enrollment of 20 students in grades nine through 12.

However, Greeley County is the least populated county in the state, with a total population of just under 2,000.

There are numerous students from these small rural Kansas communities here at Kansas State University. After all, we are a national leader in agricultural programs.

But what is the “issue” with these students, and why should you even care about any of us or this topic?

Here’s why: students from rural high schools attending college are the most likely of any students to drop out, according to a 2016 National Student Clearing House study.

I take this issue very seriously. Students from rural high schools are something I worry about each day here.

From my personal experience, rural students feel intimidated about many factors when going to college. Everything is new and different, from going to visit a professor to sitting in lecture halls with enough seats to fit their entire home town’s population.

The fact is, rural students are at an unrecognized disadvantage when it comes to succeeding at universities. When we think of at-risk students at any college in Kansas, urban students and minorities tend to come to mind. But rural students should also be added to that list.

Now, this case isn’t true for all students from small towns across our state and nation. Many students from small high schools step foot on our campus and do incredible things.

But, the fact remains that growing up in a small town and coming to college is intimidating. It was for me.

I had fears of not fitting in, not being able to adjust to the large class sizes. I came from a school district where all the teachers taught my older sister for four years, knew my parents well and even knew the name of our dog.

Small school districts are very different in how they operate and what opportunities students have. For example, students from rural school districts do not have the opportunity to take multiple foreign language courses. My high school only offered Spanish, and some districts in our area have to teach Spanish using online software.

In rural high schools, your principal might also be the athletic director, counselor, coach or even a bus driver. At one point, my school district, USD 200, had a superintendent who also served as the K-12 principal and drove the bus for activities. This has become the norm for small schools across Kansas.

Students from smaller schools are also at a disadvantage when it comes to the variety of courses they can take because smaller districts do not have the resources to teach extra courses.

Students in more affluent, larger districts are more likely to be prepared for college and have taken numerous courses outside of the core requirements including advanced placement and dual credit courses. Many of these options are not available to students in smaller districts that simply can’t hire that many staff members.

All of these factors are causing a major divide in our state and nation. Students from rural areas are less ready for college, and sometimes don’t even consider coming to a four-year school, opting for a technical or community college, if they acquire a post-secondary education at all.

The “norm” in rural parts of our state is to go to a tech school or community college close to home, get your feet wet then decide if you want to continue your education further.

For me, the adjustment to college life was surprisingly easy; I found my stride, joined a fraternity, got involved on campus and was able to figure it out as I went.

But many students that come from small schools like mine are struggling to find their path. They are intimidated — not by the coursework, but the sheer size of their classes and many other factors.

There are many unique issues students from rural regions of our state and nation face, and in order for our university to have a competitive edge, we must listen and respond to the changing dynamic.

Rural Kansas faces a number of challenges, from declining populations to poor access to food and healthcare. The last thing those areas should have to worry about is their youth not having access to a quality education right here in their home state.

I am confident we will continue to find solutions here at K-State for rural students. Our K-State Family is made up of incredible people from numerous different backgrounds, and we don’t back down from challenges affecting our great state.

Noah Ochsner is a freshman in agricultural communications and journalism. The views and opinions expressed in this letter are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.