College Aspirations and Access in Working-Class Rural Communities. (2018). Sonja Ardoin. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. 123pp. Price: $85 (Hardcover). ISBN: 9781498536868. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781498536868/College-Aspirations-and-Access-in-Working-Class-Rural-Communities-The-Mixed-Signals-Challenges-and-New-Language-First-Generation-Students-Encounter

Casey Patterson, College of Engineering, Office of Student Services, Oregon State University, [email protected]

In an increasingly diverse higher education community, advisors and other student service professionals are called to demonstrate cultural awareness and competency. This could include work with international students, underrepresented minority (URM) students, or other students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One such background that may not initially be considered, however, relates to geographical diversity; specifically, students in rural areas may not be considered disadvantaged or underrepresented. However, as Sonja Ardoin demonstrates in College Aspirations and Access in Working-Class Rural Communities, many rural students face a diverse set of challenges in their journey for higher education.

Ardoin’s book is the culmination of a long-term qualitative research study conducted in a rural community in the American Southeast. Notably, this is precisely how the book reads – as case study research. It begins by describing the location and research subjects and then presents background and research findings through the consolidated voices of two potential first-generation students and one high school counselor. Though the study itself included more participants, these consolidated voices are designed to be representative of the collective. Ardoin specifically addresses three topics: college choice, cultural capital, and college knowledge and jargon. Throughout the book, the student voices paint a picture recognizable to many from rural areas in that: sports are often viewed as a pathway to college; students express some desire to go to college, but have little occupational knowledge; financial burdens are often an insurmountable roadblock. From the counselor’s perspective, an intense sentiment of understaffing and overworking is described, along with struggles in parent engagement.

Importantly, Ardoin frames the issues for different interested populations, as she speaks to the role of state and federal policy-makers, school administrators and institutions of higher education. The connection to higher education is perhaps most directly correlated to recruitment and outreach; however, it is not a stretch to apply her findings to student service professionals. Some of the following conclusions and recommendations can be drawn from Ardoin’s findings:

  • A rural, first-generation college student’s first interaction with college jargon (registrar, credit hour, campus life, etc.) may be in an advisor’s office. It is imperative, then, to take the time necessary with the student and check for understanding.
  • Many higher education institutions value high-return business and marketing practices, meaning outreach is conducted in areas more likely to have college-going students – suburban and urban areas, primarily. This underscores the importance of student services staff involvement in recruitment when opportunities arise with rural students.
  • College aspirations are tied not just to college knowledge, but occupational knowledge. In first-year advising, specifically, this highlights the need to address career options, pathways, and lifestyles.
  • Financial burdens and geographic location may restrict viable institution options for rural students. Offering a transfer to these students may not be a practical option.

Recent titles such as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Tara Westover’s Educated have illuminated the arduous journey that some students take to education. Ardoin’s research-based book stands in slight contrast, as it is less focused on the individual and perhaps more apt to generalization and practice.

As a first-generation rural student, the book was thoroughly enjoyable to read, likely due to the reminiscent comparisons constantly being drawn. Consider Ardoin’s book as another resource for student advocacy.

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