Rural Kids in College


Contrary to predispositions, some rural kids do very well in universities. A recent Opportunity Insights  study reports that rural students from many areas of the country are as upwardly mobile as their contemporaries from urban or suburban communities. However, the notion that students from rural communities are not as well prepared for college or do not attend college at the same rate as their urban and suburban counterparts contains an element of truth. Some students from smaller communities do a little bit of arithmetic—a mathematical capability built on a foundation of basics at an old-fashioned public school—and find out that the family ranch or farm enterprise is as financially appealing as a “big city” job. They make an informed decision to remain in a rural setting in a community “where you don’t need to use your turn signals because everyone knows where you’re going anyway,” than to live in the city where, with or without a turn signal, a one-finger salute is a common motorist’s salutation.

The dire warnings from sources such as The Atlantic assert the only positive post-high school life follows a college education, and the urban bias goes like this: “When they’re ready to be done with high school, they think, ‘That’s all the school I need, and I’m just going to go and find a job’ on the family farm or at the egg-packaging plant or the factory that makes pulleys and conveyor belts, or driving trucks that haul grain.” It is quite possible that students have paid attention to the life-choking debt burdens of college graduates. They have applied country horse sense to the perspective that says, “I may be better served by going out and finding gainful employment.”

If a student takes a history class at a university with 300 students, and his hometown has a population of 100, the assumption is the student from the small town is disadvantaged. How about this possibility? Students from urban and suburban high schools that graduate thousands annually might glean something worthwhile from their classmate that hails from a smaller, more intimate community. Good ideas, such as the centrality of family life in creating a healthy economic unit, or the value of looking after your neighbor when he or she hits a rough patch, or the benefit of being able to put your head down and go to work, or taking orders and working towards something larger than yourself. The “ism” that infects too many people in too many parts of our nation is that the way I live is the way you should live. Disappointingly, diversity disappears.

However, it is also fair to note that in some areas rural kids are less likely to attend college than their metropolitan counterparts because they are unprepared. The Pew Research Center confirms this truism. It is clear that different rural areas produce college-going students at different rates.

Universities interested in attracting students from smaller communities have a number of options. First among them, do not apologize for value systems that are not the reported urban norm. Smaller community value systems may be the strongest attraction for students from metropolitan areas. Secondly, when teachers and advisors in rural schools suggest that universities may be overpriced and instead recommend community colleges and vocational schools, institutions should embrace that advice through enlightened transfer relationships. Applaud those practically minded tutors that caution students about overspending for a university degree. Don’t criticize fiscal responsibility.  It starts at home.

The New York Times, located in the heart of most densely populated region in our nation, suggests that many colleges are working diligently to attract rural students. One commenter from Idaho made this observation: The best students I ever had were from small towns. Most had grown up on a farm or a ranch. They got up early; they were on time and attended every class. They did their work on time and never made excuses. They were far more mature than their classmates and had a better understanding of life’s vagaries.” Personal experience resonates with this perspective.

This much is true to be sure. Individual attention is required to both attract students and help them be successful with a university experience. Rural institutions should forgo what works in big cities and apply what works at home—a personal touch. Talk to people. Treat them as if they matter. Do not expect them to respond to things exactly as you do. They are individuals. Use dignity, courtesy and respect in communications. Flattery, pandering or condescension will not work well in any environment and is particularly troubling to students who have an appreciation for hard work, action, results and rewards.

Rural or urban—kids all the same and all need attention to their individual aspirations.

Regional Universities and Economic Development

All universities have economic impact on the regions and communities in which they are located. Changing views of higher education have affected the role of the university as an economic development engine. A university education is a combined public and private good, benefiting everyone in the public square while simultaneously directly benefiting the holder. Increasingly, education is viewed as a commodity—something bought and sold, like a pair of shoes or a wristwatch. This view of the university diminishes its real and perceived public value.

Students attend college to get a better job according to a UCLA study of freshmen. That is a personal benefit and, if the job is in close proximity to the university, a public benefit through increased tax collections and quality of life. The UCLA study ranked employment higher than other less easily calibrated benefits such as a greater appreciation of ideas, being a more informed citizen and the joy of learning. Return on investment is held high.

Universities alone cannot fix struggling economies no matter how much research funding it attracts; or the quality of its academic programs or the number of students enrolled. Community engagement with the university seems to have a more powerful impact than the university “going it alone.” Universities can reach out, but communities must be encouraged to reach in. This is a two-way street. Arizona State University created the “New American University” model to integrate economic development with university life.

Large business investments with heavy state subsidies create mega projects, such as the relationship between Tesla’s Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo and the State University of New York. However, such engagements are not typically appropriate for smaller regional universities. In those settings, locally defined actions with numerous smaller business and industry contributors that have less subsidy support are required.

At West Texas A&M University, relationships with beef producers are having a positive impact. Feedlot operators, through their support of the academic programs in agriculture and related disciplines, are creating positive results. The near- and long-term impact of such investments will likely take a few years to appreciate. However, academic programs’ responses to industry needs, salted with endowments and other investments, benefit both public and private wellbeing.

Innovation and regional economic impact does not always fit within a single academic area, and cooperation is required, both from the campus to the community and within the campus between various programs. “Silos” stymie progress. A new Doctor of Education program in the College of Education and Social Sciences targets smaller school systems. Teaching and research experiences will increase the effectiveness of leadership and management in rural school districts. Most colleges of education focus on urban and suburban school systems. The political push and pull in statehouses require this. However, a regional university that serves a large number of smaller districts—proud of their schools and students and locally governed—responds to forces different from those in major population areas. Regional economic impact comes from smaller districts so that a regionally rising tide of effectiveness provides widespread value. In addition, without good primary and secondary schools, economic growth will be stunted at best or, too often, nonexistent.

Along with attention to smaller schools and locally important industry, the Small Business Administration distributes grants that stimulate small businesses, often located in rural regions. Forbes reported this month on the power of small business optimism in relationship to national economic prosperity. The idea that small businesses do little to help the national economy is awash with predispositions relative to the value of smaller communities in the matrix of cause and effect relationships that paint a national economic picture. These communities and the entrepreneurism espoused and valued on “Main Street” are important components of both local and national economic power. In addition, regional institutions should be driving the bus in helping smaller communities and the businesses they support produce private and public benefit.

The role of regional universities in economic development should be central to the purpose of these higher education workhorses. To be sure, flagship and land grant institutions have long-term impact on smaller, dispersed communities, while serving the whole state. This view crystallized in 1914 through The Wisconsin Idea: The boundary of the university campus and the boundary of the state were seen as one in the same.

However, regional institutions may call a far-flung constellation of communities home, and they shoulder a great geographic burden to educate and help insure prosperity. A sound university education rests on the idea that both a private benefit and the public good are welded together through care, investment and commitment. Such a perspective leads to economic development, social prosperity and informed citizenship.

This is our goal at West Texas A&M University.


Purpose and Place

The roots of higher education in the United States are knotted into purpose and place.  From a functional standpoint, all universities, public and private, existed for producing ministers. At Harvard, three in four graduates in the seventeenth century became working clergy. Most stayed in Massachusetts.

Harvard ‘s purpose was crystallized in in Samuel Morrison’s history, The Founding of Harvard College:  

After God had carried us safe to New-England, and wee had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, rear’d convenient places for Gods worship, and setled the Civill Government: One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust…., it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard (a godly gentleman and a lover of learning; then living amongst us) to give one-half of his estate… another gave £300; others after them cast in more; and the public hand of the State added the rest. The Colledge was by common consent appointed to be at Cambridge (a place very pleasant and accommodate), and is called (according to the name of the first founder) Harvard Colledge. [sic]

The College of William and Mary, the second oldest university in the United States, is another prototypical example. Founded privately to produce ministers of the Gospel for the Church of Virginia in the British colony, it became public in 1906. It served purpose and place.

New light Presbyterians founded the College of New Jersey in 1747, now Princeton University. The Church of England in New York founded King’s College, now Columbia. The Baptists founded Rhode Island College, now Brown University. The Academy of Pennsylvania midwifed by Benjamin Franklin changed its name in 1791 to the University of Pennsylvania. The Dutch Reform Church created what we now know as Rutgers University. These institutions were founded to serve a specific place with a specific purpose.

The number of colleges in the United States exploded from 1940 until the turn-of-the-century. Less than a thousand existed at the start of the Second World War. Now over 4000 colleges exist. The advent of the land-grant university system was initiated through the Morrill Act and signed by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862, at the height of the Civil War. This act with Lincoln’s fortuitous signature on it demonstrates the importance of public universities: The primary purpose was to breathe life into the industrial revolution.

From the same Virginia that produced The College of William and Mary arose a son of slaves who became an academic and civic leader and founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Booker T. Washington cataloged his remarkable life in his autobiography Up from Slavery. President Charles Eliot granted him an honorary degree from Harvard University on June 24, 1896. As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, campuses began to focus on utility in results for the nation. Presidents Lincoln, Washington and Eliot led the movement.

The impact of a culture of women in higher education started in 1837 with the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Mount Holyoke, founded by Mary Lyon who was heavily influenced by the colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards, operated to provide women the opportunity for advanced education. Today, on many campuses, women outnumber men. In Utah, half of the university leaders in the state are women.

While purpose changed from educating clergy to the importance of service and, with the Morrill Act, to our national defense, place was held to be paramount. Universities understood where they were, and whom they served. As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, campuses began to focus on utility in results for graduates.

University bureaucracies and infrastructure for the past hundred years worked to create jobs and economic development potential. The twentieth century exchange of value has changed the nature of higher education in the United States. The detachment from place became a reality as the twentieth century became the twenty-first. Ubiquitous instruction was born through the Internet.

The liberation from purpose and place is now complete in the eyes of many. However, the best online programs, such as those offered by WT’s Paul and Virginia Engler College of Business, still tie place to student.

The importance of clearly identifying purpose and place was hollowed out following the mindset of universalism prevalent in contemporary culture. However, the very best universities are attenuated by place and purpose. The growing number of university failures in the United States harkens back to a lack of concern for the importance of purpose and place.

At West Texas A&M University, as we configure our view of ourselves to a changing environment, we are ever attending to a clear purpose and place.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at

The Squeeze

The birthrate in America has been on the decline. In 2016, with slightly less than 60 births per 1000 women, a historic low was realized. This marks universities. Those most affected by decreasing birthrates will be regional campuses like West Texas A&M University.  Institutions not among the elite private or the flagship public institutions will struggle for new students according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Added to the sheer decrease in the number of students is a downward trend in college preparedness according to the National Assessment Governing Board, confirmed by the National ACT.  Declines in readiness are apparent in English and math, while reading and science have seen slight increases.  Variation occurs based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and geography. Too frequently, finger pointing follows these findings. Some suggest our education standards have collapsed and blame families and high schools.  There is a measure of truth in these laments, but universities must recognize a changing “feedstock.”

Nathan D. Grawe, of Carleton College in Minnesota, confirms these impacts on enrollment in regional universities.  A limited number of states will see growth in college attendance. California and South Carolina will grow, and some remain relatively unchanged, Texas and Florida are examples. Grawe predicts an impending decline nationally of 15% of college age, college ready, students.

A complicating factor to this challenging news for most universities is the dramatically increasing cost of college attendance, and the debt that follows crippling personal and community economic and cultural prosperity.   The causes of the cost/debt debacle are debated to death inconclusively.  The problem is especially pervasive in the U.S.  The Atlantic catalogs a number of issues.  Only Luxembourg spends more per college student than America. The seemingly risk free student loans, increased spending on intercollegiate athletics, four-star dormitories, free flowing cappuccino, and a fountain of frills in college life are blamed. Careful assessment shows that the higher costs are usually associated with personnel and core services. U.S. institutions spend twice what Finland, Sweden and Germany spend on essential academic services.

Indebtedness and the legitimate fear of it drives students to find other avenues to approach career and life aspirations.  An increasing number of prestigious corporations do not require a college education.  Google, Penguin Random House, Hilton, Apple and IBM among others find ways to separate the grain from the chaff absent a traditional BA or a BS.

Texas has become a battleground for neighboring states to recruit college students. Tuition discounts, scholarships, comparative in-state tuition pricing structures, and a host of other attractions make responsiveness to in-state populations vitally important.

Elite private and state flagship universities are immunized for their attractiveness to qualified students, and family ability to pay the going rates for such educational experiences. The workhorses of American higher education that serve over half of the enrolled students, regional campuses such as West Texas A&M University, are in the jaws of the vice.

There are positive courses of action. First among them is for regional universities to reject envy of “big brother – big sister” campuses. Focus, distinctiveness, careful attention to efficiencies, and ultimate value in the relationship between what students pay and what pragmatic utility follows the walk across the stage.  Institutions that over promise and under deliver on educational value will suffer.

Campus responses to declining enrollments and increasing costs are not uniform across the nation. For example in Ohio, the graduating high school population in the next 15 years is predicted to drop by 12%.  College enrollment declines are expected to follow that trend. This will affect the 13 public colleges and universities in Ohio. In addition, international student enrollment is decreasing. Combined, these effects have less effect on flagships like Ohio State University, but a significantly greater impact on institutions like the University of Cincinnati according to Caroline Miller, the vice provost at Cincinnati.

Similar circumstances are fermenting in Virginia’s public institutions.  The challenges are manifest in different ways for on-campus and online enrollment. Surprisingly, Liberty University the private behemoth, has maintained steady on-campus enrollment of about 15,000 students but has seen a significant drop of 5,000 students in online registrants bringing to 75,000 — down from 80,000 students — Liberty’s total university enrollment.

In addition, some highly regarded, historically effective public flagships are challenged. The University of Mississippi, known for deep traditions in university life on its Oxford campus and exceptional academic programs last year lost almost 2% of its enrollment.

These forces suggest that regional institutions, and even a few major public and private universities, must attend to their mission and make the college experience responsive to the needs of their students, and distinctive to the region in which the campus resides.

Absent these actions, the squeeze may become a choke, and drain the life out of some institutions if the facts of the current college calculus are disregarded or ignored.

You, You, You, not Me, Me, Me

An effective leader must do everything within his or her power to create a strong organizational culture. Teamwork, knowledge of process, values shared by all workers, a clear understanding of organizational purpose, and a shared goal of attaining that purpose are the foundation for a positive culture according to Edgar Schein, the father of understanding organizational culture.

Herb Kelleher had a fix on how to create a strong culture. He said in a typically disarming fashion, “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.” The power in this thought is simply that love exists person to person. In addition, real love is always outward bound. Inward bound love is narcissism.

Self-centeredness wreaks havoc on any organization both for the individuals who comprise it and the goods, products and services produced. The power of Herb’s perspective is not just a touchy-feely engagement. According to a Strategy+Business, Herb’s contention was that at Southwest Airlines, “People are business.” Nice sentiment, but what value does it have in the marketplace? Well, by 2004, the Southwest Airlines that started in 1971 became the fourth largest airline in the United States with 30 consecutive years of profitability. In addition, and more astoundingly, $1 invested in Southwest Airlines’ 1972 public offering was worth $1400 in 2004.

Put people first. For Southwest Airlines, it was about putting employees first—even in front of customers. For Herb, customers occupied second chair, and stockholders were the caboose. This is a powerful testimony to what happens when a corporate culture values the work that people do regardless of the position they hold. A few things must happen if that is to be the case.

Precept One:  Leaders should do everything possible to accept and even celebrate well-intended failures. When someone in the organization attempts in good conscience to do something right, good or just in response to the need of someone served, and something goes awry, that is not failure. Instead, it may be the highest form of accomplishment. Fear of failure drives people who are there to serve into a mindset of no service at all, a mindset of self-preservation. Life is choked out of the heart of the servant and the soul of the enterprise.

Precept Two:  Leaders should welcome dissenting opinions intended to move the organization forward to greater heights of service. In too many organizational cultures, yes-men and yes-women rule the roost, and quality wilts just as a tree starved of water dies. Healthy differences of perspective create strength, not weakness.

Precept Three:  People must have confidence in leadership meaning what it says and saying what it means. Clarity in vision that people can easily grasp and embrace is essential. An unclear sense of purpose of leadership increases as proximity to the point of service decreases. The enterprise and the customer both lose.

Precept Four:  There must be passion for purpose. Everyone at every level must sense that everyday actions help meet the primary objective of the enterprise. If the worker bee cannot connect the dots back to primary purpose, the organization will fail miserably. Importantly, fault lies with leadership. This morning when I came to work I had a conversation with Marilyn who cleans my office. She told me that even though she is not an employee of the University—she works for a contracted maintenance company—our students are her students. She felt an obligation to clean the buildings, “To help students get an education.” How powerfully effective would be our university if everyone, from myself to this custodial worker, expressed that passion in action.

Precept Five:   If leaders do not champion the purpose of the organization every day in thought and deed, the organization will fail. Our university is here to serve students, and, as a public institution, the taxpayers of the state of Texas and the Panhandle. But our first priority in service is to faculty—to create a place where faculty can ply their craft. Such a sense of purpose will elevate the act of teaching to where it must be in the framework of actions that comprise the University. This happens at the very first contact that a student has with the University. For many that’s a campus visit or an application for admission. There should be in those processes a purposeful commitment by all engaged to connect the students’ desire to learn with the faculty members’ desire to teach. Processes should be crisp, clean, efficient, timely and painless. This is value-based leadership according to Brent Gleeson, combat veteran, and author ofTakingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail-Safe Principles for Leading Through Change,”

Strong organizations put energy where service occurs.

Strong universities do the same.