Student leader aims to address higher dropout rates among rural students

Noah Ochsner, sophomore in agricultural communications and journalism, represents the College of Agriculture in the Student Governing Association. (John Chapple | Collegian Media Group)

Kansas State University prides itself on being “a comprehensive, research, land-grant institution serving students and the people of Kansas, the nation, and the world” as stated in the university mission statement.

Many programs exist to assist first generation students, such as K-State First, in achieving their academic goals, but none are specific to helping a group that one student senator says is at-risk: students from rural communities.

Noah Ochsner, sophomore in agricultural communications and journalism, is a student senator for the College of Agriculture concerned about rural student success at K-State. Ochsner grew up in Tribune, Kansas — a small town located in Greeley County, the least populated county in the state.

“I noticed the moment I set foot on campus that it’s very different for students from those school districts,” Ochsner said.

Ochsner’s goal for Student Governing Association this year is to create a committee aimed at helping students from rural communities. A bill to create the Special Committee on Rural Student Success will be introduced in the first student senate meeting of the fall 2019 semester on Thursday. The goals of the committee will be to see how many rural students attend K-State, create a method for counting rural students and to implement programs to encourage their success on campus.

“I think this is a pressing enough issue at K-State that we should be able to get it through senate,” Ochsner said. “It’s becoming more and more relevant on a national scale.”

Thomas Lane, vice president of student life and dean of students, said he agrees that the creation of an SGA committee is a positive goal. Lane added that one of the first tasks should be creating an agreed upon definition of “rural student,” as the definition differs depending on the government department.

Issues facing rural students

Ochsner said students from smaller, rural schools may get confused when they first arrive on campus. They come from schools where they know everyone’s name, where they live, what their classmate’s dog’s name is and more. They have always felt like they belong. When they arrive at a large university, they get lost in the shuffle of bodies headed to class.

Lane, in his short time at K-State, has seen these issues already.

“I have had conversations with students from rural areas who have expressed feeling initially overwhelmed by the size of the university or a lecture hall class environment when compared with their hometown experience,” Lane said.

These students also don’t know the types of resources available to them on campus. The classes they took in high school weren’t as rigorous as their peers from urban areas. Soon, rural students could fall behind and drop out.

Ochsner learned more about this issue from an NPR article.

“That study shows that students who graduate from rural high schools in parts of the country are going to be the first to drop out typically,” Ochsner said. “They are the most at risk, which to me was alarming.”

Educational gap

Ochsner said these students who drop out and return home can create an educational gap in rural communities. This educational gap could lead to a wealth gap if it continues for too many generations. Ochsner said this contributes to oppression in rural areas.

“What’s going to happen with me, for example, is that I am going to graduate from college and I probably won’t return to my hometown because my degree is not worth it to return after I spent thousands of dollars here,” Ochsner said. “This is a problem nationwide, but we also don’t want to get in a cycle where people are coming here and dropping out with no education.”

Without students returning to their hometowns following graduating from a university, the population in rural areas will dwindle, contributing to educational and wealth gaps.

Hannah Heatherman, senior in finance and speaker of the student senate, said that universities were originally created for rich, white males. Over the years, this has changed. However, if dropout rates of rural students continue to be an issue, there will be less diversity on K-State’s campus.

“The more work we can do as student leaders to be sure that we never return to having that same problem is really important,” Heatherman said. “Because oftentimes, yes, there’s a lot of money in those rural communities. But there’s also the flip side, when that educational gap starts to come into play.”

Ochsner said the money in rural communities are held by a few people who had a successful couple years. The majority of people in rural communities have not had that success, such as in Scott, Greeley and Ness counties in western Kansas.

Goals for the committee

One proposed way to perform a census would be to track which school districts students come from. The downside of this solution is that it would primarily work for in-state students.

Ochsner also said state legislators’ focus on expanding K-12 education to help students be better prepared for college would greatly decrease the dropout rate. He said he hopes that SGA and rural committee members would get to talk to legislators about this issue.

“I think one of our other goals is getting state legislators to realize that this is an issue, getting lawmakers to buy into this and getting university administration to buy into this,” Ochsner said. “That this isn’t just a K-State problem. This is going to be happening in every state university in Kansas.”

In addition to the census and talking to legislators, Ochsner wants to emphasize that K-State administrators and students want these rural students to succeed.

“We need to make sure that we’re really drilling it in the students like we do have resources, we have a success center that’s absolutely free,” Ochsner said. “We have tutoring that’s free. All of our professors have mandatory office hours and are willing to meet with you. And then our staff and faculty are here to help in any way, shape or form. We’re here to help as student leaders. We’re here for you, we’re here to help. We’re here to make sure that you have a place on campus.”

Ochsner’s goal is for the committee to have students who are both in SGA and from other groups on campus. Students from rural communities would be preferred, but, Ochsner said, having a diverse group of voices would be beneficial.

My name is Bailey Britton and I am the former editor-in-chief of the Collegian. Previously, I have been the assistant news editor and the managing editor. I have also interned for the Manhattan Mercury and the Colby Free Press. I grew up in Colby, Kansas, and I am a junior in journalism and English. Through the Collegian, I aim to provide the K-State community with quality news coverage while we learn to serve our campus.