Educational challenges in "Flyover Country"


Opinion by Dr. David Svaldi, President

A few years ago I was taken to dinner at an expensive Italian restaurant in San Francisco by a lawyer friend. Our waiter asked, "Where are you from?" When I responded, "Colorado," he replied, "Oh, Flyover Country." If he had only known - I was from Flyover Country IN Flyover Country. Alamosa and Adams State University are in south central Colorado, where we have limited air service, no interstate highways within 75 miles, and only one Starbucks.

Our remote, rural location means the national issues churning around higher education -especially the proposed solutions - are often irrelevant, if not detrimental, to our situation. One example is MOOCS (Massive Open On-line Courses), offered for free. Some might think that low-income students could profit from free courses, many of which are embedded with great instructional resources.

That's a nice idea, but in reality, to ensure students have a chance at success, we would still need to devote wrap-around resources such as academic support, tutoring, IT training, etc. The national completion rate for undergraduate on-line courses is only around 18%, and MOOCS are so new, there is little data on the success of undergraduate students, especially those from a low-income background. This approach would be risky for Adams State students, of whom half need at least one remedial course as freshmen; more than one-quarter need two or more. In addition, many come from communities on the other side of the digital divide - Flyover Country - with some never having logged on to any computer - although most have some sort of cell phone. MOOCs could work, but in the end there would be little savings, and it's not clear if learning would actually occur.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have proposed a college rating system to provide better consumer data for prospective students. This also sounds like a good idea, but the rating measures are controversial and may have undesirable impacts on institutions like Adams State University that provide access to higher education for underserved populations.

Who are the underserved? Almost anyone who attends a rural public school, and particularly the poor and minorities. Consider that 20 percent of rural residents are poor, and that 80 percent of rural children living in poverty are minorities. Where do they live? Flyover Country.

Rebecca Schreuder wrote in the Michigan Journal of Social Work and Social Welfare: "The deck is stacked against children in poor rural communities because the very tools they need to escape their disadvantages are the tools to which they have no access. Poor rural areas, more than poor urban areas, lack resources such as quality education, health care, nutrition education, physical activities, mental health resources, and social enrichment activities."

Using measures such as graduation rates to assess the performance of less-selective colleges and universities could ultimately hurt them and the students they serve - those who could most benefit from higher education. Official graduation rates exclude students who transfer, take a semester or year off, or who take more than six years to graduate. To an individual untrained in higher education jargon, a 25% six-year graduation rate suggests that 75% of students who enroll at Adams State University never complete. But in fact, students who transfer to or from Adams State, but do earn a degree are not counted in any official graduation rate. Twenty percent of the 2013 ASU graduating class took more than six years to complete.

The majority of American undergraduates - about 60% - attend less-selective state institutions, and the average graduate attends two or three different institutions. The proposed rating system currently does not take this into account, and would have the effect of directing even more resources - Federal Financial Aid for example - to the more selective institutions.

But you can't blame Washington very much, since the majority of Senators, Cabinet Officers and most American Presidents have attended highly selective institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, University of Chicago, etc., and thus, do not understand or perhaps value other types of institutions.

I love living in Flyover Country in Flyover Country, and I'm proud of the work my university does in our rural community. It would be a tragedy if the solutions proposed to "fix" higher education result in more challenges for the nation's public higher education institutions, those that educate the majority of Americans.