On a late-autumn Sunday, a bus pulled out of El Paso at 3 a.m. carrying 52 sleepy students and parents from western Texas and New Mexico. A few had already driven several hours to get to El Paso. The bus arrived at Texas A&M 12 hours later, in time for a walking tour and dinner. After “Aggieland” information sessions, including a student panel and classroom visits, a stop at the Bonfire Memorial and an all-night drive, they arrived back in El Paso at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
“People don’t realize that Texas is a huge state,” said Scott McDonald, director of admissions at Texas A&M who came up with the idea of bus trips upon realizing that students from remote areas would not visit on their own. “Sometimes colleges say, ‘We don’t get many of those students; it’s not worth our time.’ ” He disagrees. Rural students bring “a unique perspective” to campus, he said. “In terms of diversity, geography is just as important as racial and ethnic.”
Mr. McDonald proved prescient. Given election results that turned up the volume on the concerns of rural Americans, who voted their discontent over lost jobs and economic disparities, higher education leaders are now talking about how to reach the hard-to-get-to.
“All of a sudden, rural is on everyone’s mind,” said Kai A. Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State, adding that November’s vote amplified the plight of people who had heretofore been “pretty systematically ignored, dismissed or passed over.” That’s partly because, while the federal government labels 72 percent of the nation’s land area “rural,” it is home to only 14 percent of the population, and rural schools educate just 18 percent of the nation’s public school students. Locales designated as rural have higher poverty rates and lower education levels than those labeled urban, suburban or town.
To college administrators, rural…