Rural Underrepresentation Weakens Student Body

Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis: Together, the majority of students at Pomona College come from these eight places. Let’s face it—Pomona is not anywhere near as demographically diverse as brochures and admissions officers often claim to prospective students.

Just about everyone at Pomona comes from a city or a suburb of a large city. Of the 18 people in my sponsor group, for example, only one person hails from an area with a metropolitan population of less than two million people. Pomona’s lack of rural presence has an obvious explanation, to a certain extent. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that, per the 2010 Census, 19.3 percent of American residents reside in rural areas. Decades and almost a century of urbanization have decimated significantly the percentage of students living in rural areas; America’s rural population fell an incredible 12.1 percent in the period between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses.

Even taking into account the nuances of social trends and census data, students from rural areas are still disproportionately represented at Pomona. At least at face value, Pomona has never been closer to representing a microcosm of the nation, and to a greater extent, the world. Long gone are graduating classes consisting entirely of upper-class Caucasians. However, I worry that our institution emphasizes some types of diversity over other equally important types.

Students from rural backgrounds have unique perspectives that are equally important at our school as those of the ethnic minority students whom Pomona actively recruits. As a result, the lack of a rural presence here ensures that we lack a voice that historically has been integral to the development of America. Rural areas have been, and continue to be, the hubs of America’s agricultural system.

In my Introduction to Environmental Analysis class, we spent a class period investigating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Corporate negligence on swine CAFOs in rural North Carolina has produced unbearable pollution and smell for the people who live near the plants. The fact that no one from my class was from a rural, agricultural area and could relate to the situation was a detriment to our class discussions about CAFOs and their implications. Just as having students from different social classes is important for discussions in an untold number of disciplines, having students from both rural and urban areas adds an entirely new facet to many discussions.

The deficiency of rural students is not unique to Pomona, or even to the 5Cs. Last month, the New York Times published “Better Colleges Failing To Lure Talented Poor” and “The Ivy League Was Another Planet,” investigating low-income students with top SAT scores in urban versus rural areas. 

As one author writes, “even the most talented rural poor kids don’t go to the nation’s best colleges. The vast majority, the study found, do not even try.”

Shayna Citrenbaum PO ’15, originally from Bishop, California—a town of 4,000 located near the Nevada border—expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s likely that [Pomona has] a lack of rural applicants,” she said, “who have a lack of opportunities, who have a lack of time and energy and sense of immediate gain to carry out all the SAT [nonsense].”

Attracting students from rural areas isn’t an easy process by any means, but it’s important and doable. Pomona does a good job recruiting low-income students through programs like Posse and QuestBridge, but these programs are almost exclusively for those from metropolitan areas. The Posse program at Pomona only selects students from Chicago. I see value in installing a program similar to Posse geared toward students from rural areas. Studies indicate that low-income students from both rural and urban areas often do not apply to selective colleges because they don’t know much about them and the expansive financial aid programs they may offer. However, unlike in the inner city, there are few programs in small or rural towns intended to provide students with information about selective colleges and the benefits of actually attending one.

Even on a more basic level, Pomona could invest in sending out more brochures and mail to high school students in rural areas. It’s likely that most of these students have not heard of Pomona—let alone any other selective liberal arts college.

Pomona has made a commitment to diversity; there’s no doubt about that. However, such commitment has been manifested overwhelmingly in ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, socioeconomic class. There’s so much more to diversity than just these two factors. In total, the purpose of diversity is to ensure that a plurality of perspectives is represented on campus. The ideals and values that students bring from rural areas are equally as important as those of any ethnicity or social class, and they should be treated as such.