Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Admissions Practices and Pulling Calves

Every year, Macalester's Admissions Department puts up a class profile showing some statistics about the incoming class of freshmen. This year, the Class of 2017 came from 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam. It doesn't say how many, or what percentage, came from a rural area. So I thought I would write about my experience being a rural student at Macalester, and do my best to explain for any of my interested urban and suburban classmates what it is like to come from a small town in the middle of nowhere to the big-city environs of Macalester.

I started thinking about this back in March, when the New York Times published an article highlighting a simple problem confronting college admissions departments - low income, highly talented high school students aren't applying to "selective" colleges (as defined by Barron's top 238). According to a study by the Brookings Institution, only 34% - about a third - of high achieving, low income students attended selective colleges. Many of these students could probably get in - if they would apply. But they don't. The authors noted that the students who don't apply to selective colleges do so because they are from:
[school] districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college.
In response to this study, Professor Claire Watkins of Bucknell published an excellent Op-Ed for the Times, describing the challenges rural students like herself had faced in attempting to apply to selective colleges. She talked about the experience that she and a friend had while traveling to enter an academic competition in Nevada in high school:
Looking to size up the competition, we asked what high school he went to. He said a name we didn’t recognize and added, “It’s a magnet school.” Ryan asked what a magnet school was, and spent the remaining hour incredulously demanding a detailed account of the young man’s educational history: his time abroad, his after-school robotics club, his tutors, his college prep courses. 
All educations, we realized then, are not created equal. For Ryan and me, of Pahrump, Nev., just an hour from the city, the Vegas boy was a citizen of a planet we would never visit. 
Now, I am not a "high-achieving, low-income" student. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family with a relatively high income,  and both my parents had four-year degrees from a good state university. But I am a rural student. Home is a small ranch in Baker County, Oregon. Baker City (the county seat) is an old, struggling mill town in Northeastern Oregon that is about a two hour drive from Boise in Idaho and a five hour drive from Portland, the state's main population center.

Over the last two years I've spent at Macalester, I've certainly had a number of what I think of as "Dorothy Moments" - moments that showed me how much I really didn't know and reminded me that I really wasn't in Northeastern Oregon (metaphorically Kansas) anymore.

Like many people outside the Midwest, I'd never heard of Macalester College growing up. Everyone in my life went to schools much closer to home - most of my teachers went to Eastern Oregon University, Oregon State University, or the University of Oregon. A few people I knew, like my parents, had gone out of state - they went to Washington State. As I got into high school, a number of people started paying attention to Boise State University - they'd just won the Fiesta Bowl in 2007, earning themselves national attention. Suddenly, everybody wanted to go there.

Professor Watkins noticed a similar phenomenon growing up:
By the time they’re ready to apply to colleges, most kids from families like mine — poor, rural, no college grads in sight — know of and apply to only those few universities to which they’ve incidentally been exposed. Your J.V. basketball team goes to a clinic at University of Nevada, Las Vegas; you apply to U.N.L.V. Your Amtrak train rolls through San Luis Obispo, Calif.; you go to Cal Poly. I took a Greyhound bus to visit high school friends at the University of Nevada, Reno, and ended up at U.N.R. a year later, in 2003.
I first heard of Macalester after I took the PSAT as a Sophomore. A fat envelope turned up at my house encouraging me to apply to Mac. Eventually, I got more from them, and indeed more mail from a lot of colleges. But one thing I didn't have was any kind of access to information about these private colleges. Sure, I knew the Ivy Leagues were good - Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc. But I didn't know anything about how private liberal arts colleges like Mac are ranked. Wesleyan, Macalester, Haverford or Bucknell? Which was better? I had no idea. My guidance counselors and parents didn't know. Nobody I knew had ever heard of them. The authors of the Brookings study I mentioned used the Barron's rankings - I didn't know such rankings even existed. I've still never seen them.

When I eventually applied to and visited Macalester, it was partly because they'd sent me more mail than other schools and had promptly answered an email I sent to admissions - I felt like Mac "wanted" me more. When I eventually settled on Mac as a school, the only comment I got from most of the people in my life was to bring a coat - Minnesota is cold! Thanks.

Over the summer, I got a letter from the school - my roommate had been assigned. I immediately Facebook stalked him. I discovered he had gone to a private high school in St. Louis. I looked it up on Wikipedia - nearly every student from his high school went to a four year college. The median SAT score for their graduating class was near my SAT score, about 2100 (one of the highest in my school). Out of about 100 graduates, 24 were National Merit Scholar Semifinalists. This was a school that graduated congressmen, chief justices, and famous authors.

By contrast, my high school graduated 120 students in 2011. I and one other student were the only National Merit Scholars Semifinalists that anybody could remember. 30% of my high school cohort didn't even graduate. Only 40 or 50 students even bothered to take the SAT. We had a grand total of three AP classes, and I took them all along with several other tests on my own after studying independently. At the time I thought I was doing pretty well for myself. But like Professor Watkins, I was competing with students coming from a world I couldn't even imagine.

I assumed my roommate was crazy rich. I later found out he really wasn't. He was solidly middle class, but because he lived in suburban St. Louis, he had a wide variety of schools, public and private, that he could apply to and attend and receive financial aid. In Baker City, Oregon, my options were homeschooling, public school, or Christian schools run by our local religious extremists. The discovery that my roommate's school existed was my first Dorothy Moment.

Other Dorothy Moments were cultural. Upon arriving in orientation at Macalester, every first-year was given free tickets to the Minnesota State Fair. I and a group of newly made friends decided to go. We visited a building called the "Miracle of Life" barn which, if you have never been, features a number of cows, pigs, and other farm animals giving birth, complete with instant replays on big TV screens.  Watching a man pull a calf, my urban/suburban friends were appalled and disgusted.

If you've never seen someone pull a calf, you probably won't understand their disgust. It involves putting a chain with handles on the legs of a calf and physically pulling it out of the cow while the cow is giving birth. You can find videos of it on YouTube. It's usually done, I believe, to help save the cow and calf if the calf is being born butt first instead of head first, which happens sometimes and can be fatal. In fact, I've seen a calf die because it wasn't pulled soon enough. The process may be gross, but it saves the animal's life.

I, on the other hand, had helped my dad do it a number of times on my family's ranch. I asked my friends what the problem was. But my friends were not alone; most of the urban residents attending the State Fair were similarly disgusted. Their disgust was a mystery to me because what they found horrifying was a regular part of my life and my family's livelihood. I felt uniquely uncomfortable - maybe I didn't belong here. I had never in my previous life described myself as a "country kid" or a "cowboy", but all of a sudden I felt like one.

Some Dorothy Moments have been more political in nature - like the discovery that guns are widely reviled at Macalester.

Now, I am really not a gun nut. I shot a deer once but generally don't hunt. I only own a few guns, a bolt action .22 caliber rifle, a .22 semi-automatic target shooting pistol, and a 20 gauge shotgun. I am a lifelong Democrat, and I was probably one of the most liberal people in Baker County during high school. I even wrote letters to the editor of my local paper debating regional gun nuts, who insisted that then-candidate Obama wanted to take their guns away. I argued with them not because I didn't like guns, but because I mistakenly thought the debate on the Second Amendment in America was pretty much over. Obama wouldn't take anybody's guns because he, like everyone else, knew that the right to bear arms was an individual one.

I thought this because in rural America, guns are a part of life. Nearly every family I knew owned at least one gun, most owned many. Every child went through a hunter's safety class in grade school, and learnt he essential basics of gun safety. Many of my friends hunt, many more just enjoy shooting. Even those who don't really shoot much have been out a few times with friends over the course of their lives. Guns are important to nearly everyone in Baker County. For hunters, they are part of a way of life. For hobbyists, they're a fun activity and a passion. For families like mine that live 30 minutes or more from the nearest police response, they are essential protection. On the flip side, murders with guns are rare - I can only recall three or four in the county in my entire childhood.

It surprised me, then that at Macalester most students haven't even seen a gun outside of the belt of a police officer, much less used one for any reason. After the Sandy Hook massacre, the anti-gun response from my classmates on social media was overwhelming and surprising. I tried to help them understand where I was coming from, by posting links and articles that showed my side of the argument. I wrote an op-ed for the Mac Weekly. I invited some people to come shooting with Macalester Students for the Safe Exercise of our Right to Bear Arms, our campus gun club.

In retrospect, I think I overwhelmingly failed to change anybody's mind. People have defriended me on Facebook. Some people have pegged me as a Republican (I am not), which, at one of the nation's most liberal schools, might as well make one a leper. I failed partly because, in my frustration, I may not have been very tactful. But I also believe I failed because the gun issue reflects the increasingly extreme urban-rural cultural and political divide. My friends simply come from a background too different to understand the positive association I have with gun culture. Their attacks on guns and gun owners feel personal; they are an attack on me and my family.

These moments are moments of occasional isolation for me. There are many more than I've mentioned here. but they serve as a little reminder when they happen, a reminder of that nagging feeling that maybe I don't belong here. And know that I am in a much better position than the real rural kids I know from home; kids who wear cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans and look like stereotypical "country kids". Plus, I have the advantage of a socioeconomic background and college educated family that many of them do not. I'm sure that many of them are smart enough to go to school here, but I cannot imagine how they would react to life at Macalester, or that they could ever imagine themselves applying (or even know that Macalester is an option).

I would be a liar if I said that I had a good public policy proposal that solved this problem. But it might be a good start for Macalester to look at what could be causing it. In 2010, Ross Douthat noted a Princeton study on admissions policies, which revealed that:
while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural...
Over at Legal Ruralism, Professor Lisa Pruitt argues that affirmative action policies could be extended to include poor, rural, white students to help correct the bias against rural students in the college admissions process. I don't have an opinion about that yet; I'll have to think about it more.

But beyond admissions practices, the urban-rural culture clashes seem intractable. Indeed, maybe we don't want to get rid of them - they could be a learning experience for my peers as much as they've been a learning experience for me. I hope this article can clarify for some people on campus where I come from and why it makes a difference. Macalester is intended to be a global and diverse community, but you don't have to go outside the country to find diversity. You just have to go outside city limits.

Edit (2 PM, 7/10): Included the fact that GU stands for Guam.

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your article and believe you hit the nail on the head on so many topics. I am a 2010 Macalester grad but also spent my upbringing in rural America on a West Texas Ranch. In many ways my experience before and after my move to Macalester mirrored the situations you highlight. While my time at Macalester was not always the most enjoyable, I believe you are right in pointing out the importance of sharing perspectives between rural and urban students.

    I treasure both the foundation my upbringing provided me and the personal growth that came from my leap into what seemed a foreign culture, but know how difficult maneuvering those channels can be. Amnesty and Benefit of the Doubt are hardly granted in today's society, and Macalester for me was the realization that even the most seemingly progressive minds do not escape the constructs of closed minded thought. Most students are trying to mold their perspective on the world, just as I was, and that comes with bumps and bruises.

    It sounds as if you are taking a good approach to formulating your thoughts on the subject and I would love to connect if possible.