Driving west down I-70, rolling plains blur through the window. Cows graze in golden pastures spanning acres and acres. Past Salina, a wind farm sprawls out into the country side.
As any Kansan knows, the western part of the state doesn’t begin until you pass Hays, population of approximately 20,000. Past that, it’s just small towns with declining populations and golden fields of grain.
Each town tries to make a name for itself to bring in more people, but most are just rest areas as people travel west. New businesses come to town and fail, schools shrink and roads crumble.
Rural communities in the United States continued to decline as young people move away and pursue a college degree, said Noah Ochsner, student senator and sophomore in agricultural communications and journalism. However, if these people drop out of college, they typically move back to their small communities and create an educational gap.
Special Committee on Rural Student Success
The Student Governing Association student senate voted 45-4 on Sept. 26 to create the Special Committee on Rural Student Success. The committee will develop a census to determine how many students at Kansas State are from rural communities, determine the issues these students face and create ways to fix them.
Ochsner pushed for the committee to fix what he calls a university concern, but approval didn’t come easy.
The bill to create the committee was sent to Senate Executive Committee for two weeks. Ochsner answered questions related to data, income, race and education levels until he was red in the face. Students raised the value of a committee focused specifically on rural students versus a committee that helps students of many different backgrounds.
Ochsner said he believes those are valid concerns, but he wants to start this committee because he is from a rural community and knows the issues first hand.
“The reason I didn’t start a committee on urban students or other students is because I’m not from that region,” Ochsner said. “I know nothing about those issues. I have not personally experienced any of those situations. My opinion is invalid in those conversations. There are other students that are fit to have those conversations far better than I am and fit the characteristics and have the knowledge and know how to do it far better than I ever would. This is something that I care about passionately. I put a lot of effort into it, and the reason I do it is because I’ve experienced it, and I have read a lot about it, and I researched about it, and I hear about it.”
What is “rural”?
The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as any population, housing or territory not in an urban area. However, the Bureau states most rural populations are “clustered in the vicinity of urban areas.”
The Census Bureau also has guidelines for urbanized areas and urban clusters. Urbanized areas have a population of 50,000 or more while urban clusters have at least 2,500 people and less than 50,000.
Urbanized areas in Kansas include Overland Park, Olathe, Topeka, Lawrence, Manhattan, Wichita and more.
Surrounding these areas are metropolitan statistical areas which can be considered “rural” but with a high population. A majority of Kansas is a low-concentration rural area.
Urban clusters include Dodge City, Garden City, Hays, Colby and Salina to name a few. These areas are typically surrounded by low-concentration rural areas.
Rural students at K-State
K-State doesn’t specifically identify “rural communities,” Susan Cooper, interim university registrar, said in an email. There is no data identifying students from rural communities, but K-State does provide information about how many students are from each county in Kansas.
There are 15,290 Kansans attending K-State, but data from the Office of the Registrar lists 10 students as coming from “unknown” countries. A Collegian investigation identified 16 of Kansas’s 105 counties as urbanized areas, which account for 11,157 students — most of them from Johnson County. The remaining 89 counties account for 4,123 rural students, or about 27 percent of the in-state student body.
The Special Committee on Rural Student Success plans to conduct a census using a survey sent to all students and seeing how many responses they receive, Ochsner, the committee chair, said in an email.
“I know that is not an easy task,” Ochsner said. “Some students just don’t take surveys that we email them. Overall we hope to have a conversation with the university registrar at some point to see how we can count those students internally.”
Ochsner said that is further down the road, but it’s where he hopes the committee ends up.