“There aren’t any applicants out there,” Griffith said. “We’ve got one physics teacher in the county for three high schools.”
Nor is there widespread confidence in rural places that going to college is worth it. Compared to their counterparts in more populous areas, fewer rural white men are convinced that colleges and universities have a role in providing necessary skills, Pew found; 71 percent think they do, compared to 82 percent of urban and 84 percent of suburban white men.
“This has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s not an educational phenomenon,” Fluharty said. Encouraging a rural student to go to college instead of doing the same work as the adults in a community, he said, is like “suggesting that that child should not do what I have done, should not be where I have been, should not value all that I have raised them to honor, whether that’s going to the mill or turning on the tractor at 6 a.m.”
Hawkins’s program to encourage college-going tries to overcome this by connecting its students with people who are already enrolled in college. Some come to serve as judges of a multi-district entrepreneurship competition, which also brings together college-bound kids from different schools. “They strike up a relationship that could extend online and they begin to create a future support group for when they get to college,” he said.
Such a support system is important because those rural students who do get that far are more likely to drop out between the first and second year on campus than their urban and suburban classmates, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.
Of the 618 high-school graduates who went to college in the fall of 2015 from Pike County, which is part of his cooperative, said Hawkins, only 350 went back for the spring semester and, of those, 281 for a second year. “So basically we lost more than half those kids.”
One reason is cost. For others, the problem is culture shock. “They go from 80 or 90 kids in their entire graduating class and now they’re on campus with 20,000 kids,” said Hawkins. In rural towns, “We grow up knowing our neighbors, going to church with them, shopping at the Dollar General store. There is more of a familiarity.”
It was a jolt to Gordon when, after first enrolling at the community college where his mother works, he transferred to the University of Iowa and found himself in lecture classes with more people in them than his entire hometown of Sharpsburg, population 89. The regional school he attended houses all 12 grades in the same building. There were 29 students in his graduating class.
“Coming from a rural community, everybody knows who you are,” said Gordon, who quarterbacked his high-school football team, played baseball, and ran track and field. When he got to the University of Iowa, “I literally knew nobody on campus. Going to the other side of the state with people from the Chicago area and bigger places, it’s just kind of intimidating. It’s tough to connect with people, coming from a small, rural community” to an institution with 33,334 students from 114 countries and all 50 states.