Understanding rural education inequity

Welcome back to The Ear, Spectator’s podcast dedicated to documenting, excavating, and investigating Columbia’s past and present. In this week’s episode, reporter Natalie Goldberg investigates affirmative action initiatives specific to rural students. When financial strain, inadequate infrastructure, and cultural expectations discourage rural students from attending higher education institutions, how do they overcome these barriers? Is affirmative action really the best course of action for alleviating rural education inequality? Columbia students from rural areas and a rural education researcher from Teachers College weigh in on the idea of rural affirmative action.


“All ‘ruralites’ in the University and others interested in rural education and country life are invited to this gathering. The only prerequisites are a signature on the supper list sometime before tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock and an extra half dollar in the pocket-book to pay for this supper. Remember, too, that country folks are always good cooks!”

[Natalie Goldberg]: One hundred years ago, the Rural Club at Teachers College invited students to the Hudson Palisades. The invitation, published in a July 1920 Spectator article, encouraged students to come together and discuss rural education initiatives. Decades later, Columbia students are still engaging in these same conversations.

Teachers College has a long history of supporting students from rural areas. Spectator’s coverage of the Rural Club at Teachers College is present as early as 1916. The club held panels on topics like rural illiteracy, health, and wellness and provided social opportunities for rural students to meet each other and connect. Though the Rural Club at Teachers College has seemingly disbanded, Ty McNamee and two others have come together to form something similar: the Rural Education and Healthcare Coalition.

[Ty McNamee]: We wanted to support rural students who are at Columbia in their experiences of being at Columbia, in New York City. We wanted to make sure that we were supporting folks that are interested in rural education [and] health care topics. We wanted to make sure that we were thinking about intersectionality with rural identities. So we know that rurality is not a monolith and so we want to make sure that we’re talking about folks who may be left out of conversations, like rural poor, working-class students, rural students of color, rural students with disabilities, a host of other people, rural queer people, that just don’t get talked about enough in the mainstream narratives around rurality.

[Goldberg]: Interestingly, the REHC is highlighting many of the same issues that the Rural Club in the 1920s was attempting to address, like healthcare and education inequality in rural communities. Like the Rural Club, the REHC aims to provide an opportunity for students from rural areas to meet, aid, and uplift each other. Now, instead of picnics on the Hudson Palisades, the REHC holds student success conferences over Zoom.

Organizations like this are crucial for highlighting the extreme inequity that members of rural communities face when they attempt to access higher education. Only 59 percent of high school graduates from rural areas attend higher education, compared with 62 percent of urban graduates and 67 percent of suburban graduates. This statistic, however, doesn’t shed light on the further differences between rural, urban, and suburban students who attend selective universities like Columbia. According to some of the students I interviewed, there’s a push in rural communities for students to attend a state university or community college rather than a private institution.

A highly selective university like Columbia has been historically inaccessible to underprivileged and underserved communities. And in the fight for education equity, rural students have often been, and continue to be, left out of the conversation.

[McNamee]: Being from a small town is one of the few things that it’s somehow still acceptable to make fun of or make light of in society. And we see it in media, we see it in our day-to-day interactions with folks in the city. And it’s always that stereotype around being a country bumpkin, or being a redneck, or whatever it is.

[Goldberg]: Both statistics and students describe three major factors that likely contribute to education inequality among rural students: financial barriers, inadequate educational…

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