Giving a Voice to America’s Overlooked Students
With a hyper-focused podcast, education consultant Dr. Matt Newlin aims to change how higher ed sees rural students—and how rural students see themselves
If you go by social media, you’d think the only real college experience happens at large urban schools. But TikToks and Instagram posts of students hyping up their time on big-city campuses is a reality distortion with very real impacts—particularly for rural students considering what comes after high school.
“A sign of intent to go to college, FAFSA completions [during the covid-19 pandemic] dropped 10% nationally, 13% in rural areas, and 15% in small towns,” BestColleges.com reported in November 2021. “The largely rural states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and West Virginia each saw declines of at least 19%."
The article continues, "Rural students, over 70% of whom are white, are less likely to be enrolled in college than students from cities, suburbs, and towns: Just 29% of rural Americans aged 18–24 are enrolled in colleges and universities, compared to 42% of all Americans in this age range."
Dr. Matt Newlin knows those numbers all too well. And he’s exhausted with the negative narrative around non-urban schools.
Newlin is an education consultant who has served in leadership roles at Washington University in St. Louis and College Advising Corps. He’s also a doctoral advisor in the School of Business & Education at Gwynedd Mercy University.
In September 2021, Newlin launched the podcast The Rural College Student Experience to present a fuller, realer picture of the rural student experience—in higher ed, as well as K–12. The second season began in September 2022, and over the course of the podcast’s 12 episodes, Newlin has tackled topics such as "Black Students in Rural Spaces," "Native American Students in College," "Rural Broadband Access: A Panel Discussion with Lead For America Fellows," and "The Rural Identity in K–12."
To help him explore each theme, Newlin enlists a corps of student to help guide each episode’s conversation, as well as add their own insights and expertise. Those cohosts have come from schools like University of University of South Carolina Upstate, South Plains College, Dakota Wesleyan University, and Eastern Kentucky University.
The Elective recently spoke with Newlin about his podcast, the challenges facing rural college students, and what he hopes the podcast means for students grappling with their rural identity.
Tell me about the evolution of The Rural College Student Experience. How did the podcast start?
It came out of work I’d been doing the last couple of years, specifically around rural students and first-generation and low-income students. I began working with College Advising Corps, a national college access nonprofit, in 2018 as Director of Rural Initiatives. What I found very quickly was, since the 2016 election, that more and more colleges and universities were taking rural students seriously. There's more research, there are more white papers, more admissions officers are going out to rural schools. Things are happening.
But what was missing was the student voice. We weren’t getting interviews with students. We weren’t getting recommendations from students. We weren’t hearing what is unique about the rural experience that doesn’t normally fit the systems we have set up in college and university spaces. So the podcast came out of frustration a little bit, but also my interest. I thought, “Let’s get some students talking. Let’s hear from them, so that people in my space—faculty, researchers, administrators, college presidents—can hear directly from students.”
We don’t do a great job of asking students to tell their own stories. We survey them every semester, but we don’t get a lot of storytelling from them. So that was the genesis of the podcast: How can I center rural student voices so that other rural students can hear those stories, see themselves, and actually learn something? Really, it’s about getting as much out of the students as possible so we can get a real picture of what the rural student experience is.
What has the response been to the podcast so far?
The most rewarding and reassuring responses have been from the student cohosts. Every single one of them has said how much they enjoyed their time on the show and enjoyed talking about their story—because they haven't gotten to speak elsewhere. For me, that’s the best feedback I can get. And I’ve gotten really great responses on those episodes that go into a very specific identity or a very specific attribute of the rural experience. And I actually have a couple of colleagues who have used episodes of the podcast in the classes they're teaching. One of them used it with her undergraduate students in a rural first-generation seminar class she was teaching, and they responded to and talked about it. That’s been really rewarding, as well.
Drawing on your professional experience and what you’ve learned doing the podcast, what is the experience of rural students today? What are some of the challenges that they face?
It's two major buckets. One is institutional barriers. It's not that rural students can't make it into college, not that they can't get there; it's that we have barriers in place that have been developed over decades and decades that are keeping the rural students out. These are things like scholarship applications that ask you for extracurriculars or about involvement with student government involvement or that look for volunteerism in a community. In a rural space, there may not be opportunities for a lot of extracurricular involvement. There may not be volunteer opportunities in the community, especially if you get into smaller and remote areas. A scholarship application that’s technically open to everyone can disadvantage rural students when it prioritizes one attribute over another. It might be a small thing, but those small things add up.
The other challenge is broader access issues of just physically getting to the campuses or having colleges come to rural spaces. One of the things you hear from rural students, administrators, counselors—everyone in this space—is college and universities are still not recruiting in rural and small towns the way they do in urban and suburban spaces. A lot of this comes down to cost, travel, distance, time, which all makes sense. But if we truly are trying to recruit students, we need to go into their communities. We need to be in their high schools, going to their games and events, and actually being a part of that community so students feel connected to the college or university. Over the last couple of decades, institutions will maybe send someone out every other year, every couple years, or they'll send information, but they're not standing there during the lunch periods doing presentations. They're not there in the evening doing FAFSA workshops.
What ties all this together is just lack of education. Colleges and universities really weren’t talking about rural students before 2016. Anyone in the space, I think, will agree with me on that. And now everyone's talking. Not everyone, obviously, but people are talking and it's really, really exciting because now we're getting to see the differing identities of rural students.
That's one of the things I make very clear on my podcast: rural spaces are incredibly diverse and incredibly intersectional. Now colleges and universities recognize that recruiting Black students, for example, in the south and Mississippi and Alabama is very different from recruiting maybe Latinx students in the southwest, which is different from getting students in Rust Belt coal mining towns. So we're finally getting colleges who are not only looking to rural students but are embracing their differences and their strengths. That's the important part, to not see rural students as deficit-laden or less than but to see the same strengths and resilience and impressive attributes that they have, same as any of their peers.
Newlin says there needs to be an "intention of carving out a new space" for Native American students on college campuses. "How do we actually speak to the needs of our Native Americans students, just like we need to do with our rural students?"
When I first saw the title of your podcast, I wondered, “Who qualifies as a rural college student?” Do you have an easy definition you lean on? Is there even an easy definition?
I really don't, and for most people in this space—whether it's higher ed or K–12—there's no good definition of rural. Whether you're looking at state or federal definitions, they all define it a little bit different. They use different determinations by zip code. They use different population sizes. So the short answer is no.
But even if I don't have a hard and fast definition, what I use, and what I tell people a lot of times, is: Rural is when you feel it. It's a little bit of you know when you're rural if you've seen the comparison. If you ask someone, “Are you from a rural community?” A lot of times, they'll think about it and say, “Yeah, I think I am,” if they've seen the other side of it. Or, “Are you from a remote area?” It’s like, “Yeah, I understand what it means to drive three hours to go to the nearest Walmart,” or, “I know what it means to only go see a new movie when we're in the bigger city.”
If you're not sure about the answers to those questions, you're probably not rural. But what I tell people is, “If you feel you’re rural, you're probably rural.” Rural is not a monolith—there are very, very different experiences, perspectives, and identities in rural spaces. But the similarity is that sense of community closeness, strength, resilience that I think most people from rural faiths could easily identify in themselves.
That question of identity is a current running throughout the podcast. But in this new season, you look explicitly at what it means to be a rural student and educator with an episode titled “The Rural Identity in K–12 Education.”
Doing college access, I've worked with high schools. Now I'm working with high schools, but I wanted to educate myself further about the K–8 rural identity. My cohost on the episode was Sara Wiggington, a master’s student at Purdue University who teaches fourth grade at Green Meadows Intermediate in Frankfort, Indiana. She was phenomenal because she was so open and honest with her experiences. And then the episode’s guest, Dr. Chea Parton, visiting assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Purdue University, was great, because this is her life, this is what she does, and this is what she lives and breathes.
It was really great for me as someone who has, professionally, been in the college space, to learn about what the rural experiences is like for K–8, K–12 students, as well as have this discussion around their identity. I got the sense, and I continue to get the sense, that there isn't a real rural identity separate from comparing urban and suburban spaces. So what I wanted to do with the episode was help rural students understand that their identity, the place where they come from, their family, their community is so incredibly important to who they are—and that it should continue to be important and play a role in their college experience, their college journey, from where they decide to go to what they decide to study.
There aren't a ton of popular books, like YA novels, centered on rural spaces or with rural main characters. Rural spaces and people are very few and far between in literature, but especially in contemporary literature. So that episode was really about educating myself and the listeners around the rural identity, and how in younger years it can impact your journey to college. I wanted to bring that into the larger conversation the podcast is having because I think understanding where you come from is important and impacts where you go. And I want rural students to be okay and comfortable with that kind of conflict, which is going to be a challenge.
One unique facet of this that you focus on early in the podcast is the Native American college student experience. Your student cohost was Patience Teboe, a senior at Dakota Wesleyan University in South Dakota. Why was getting the Indigenous perspective so important to this broader conversation?
It's an area in higher ed that we don't talk about or address nearly enough. Part of the reason for that episode was my own education. As I was planning and scheduling the other guests, I realized not only do I not have any Indigenous or Native American students, but I don't know enough to carry off that conversation. I needed to learn quite a bit, and as I developed the episode and looked for the cohost and guest, I was educating myself. I was able to connect with Patience, and she was just a wonderful cohost. She was so open and honest and transparent about her experiences, challenges, what it's like.
Again, this is not my area of expertise, but I know the Indigenous population—especially those coming from reservations where there’s extreme poverty—is very under-serviced. There’s a lack of not only broadband, but sometimes electricity in spaces. And then that’s compounded with distance. Like other rural small-town students, you've got these massive distances where there aren't any colleges or universities nearby. So you've got an education desert. And then colleges and universities aren’t really speaking to the Native American experience quite yet. That's just absurd to me.
So one of the reasons I wanted to have that conversation was to reinforce the idea that rural communities are extremely diverse, extremely special, but also to say, “Hey, we need to be talking about these things in rural spaces, since that's where a lot of Native American populations are.”
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"There are very different experiences, perspectives, and identities in rural spaces. But the similarity is that sense of community closeness, strength, resilience that I think most people from rural faiths could easily identify in themselves."
Remote learning comes up in that conversation, and it’s a topic woven through other conversations you have. Is the challenge of ensuring access to quality remote learning greater for Indigenous students, who often have a harder time getting reliable high-speed internet, than other rural populations?
That's a really great question. It's equally challenging, if not more, for Native American students—but I don't know if it's definitely more. It goes back to infrastructure. Reservations often suffer from a lack of municipal services, and high poverty rates might make the impact outsized to a rural community out in the middle of wherever.
Those things are compounding, but I think it's more than that. It's the lack of connection. Dr. Marleigh Perez on the episode “Native American Students in College” was really great at explaining her work with Native communities and tribal leaders. They're looking for the connection from the university. They want to feel like the university actually cares, is actually reaching out to them. And so, why the Ecampus Tribal Communities Initiative in Oregon is so successful is because they worked on it for a long time. They didn't just say, “Hey, we're going to serve rural students and send recruitment materials.” They actually went and worked with tribal leaders and said, “Okay, what would a successful online degree or successful online programs look like for your constituents and communities?”
That’s what universities need to do. How do we actually speak to the needs of our Native Americans students, just like we need to do with our rural students? It's not just a recruitment practice for the sake of recruiting a more diverse class—there needs to be an intention of carving out a new space for that population on campus.
This is a topic you’ve come back to in the new season of the podcast, with an episode dedicated to rural broadband access that featured a panel discussion with Lead for America fellows. What kind of insights did you get about the wider situation regarding broadband access for rural college students?
It was really interesting to hear from the fellows about the things people were running into because of the lack of broadband, the challenges they had as recent college graduates who were from rural places, and the communities they're trying to serve now. They also talked about the challenges, specifically in Appalachia, where you've got not only running the lines but mountains blocking the transmission. You've got to lay wire through even more terrain because you're going up and over and around mountains.
But what really came out of that was that there is legislation, there are states doing things, there are things happening at the federal level around getting broadband and basic internet access to everyone in the country, just like the electrification project decades ago. But no one has gotten it quite right. Broadband has become a basic necessity, but we still don't have it equally across the country. So it's one of those things that you can’t forget about when you talk about the rural experience. While some rural communities and states have done a better job, there are still very remote areas that have dial-up, believe it or not. They have one local provider.
And this is the other challenge—one I learned about more recently—where you have not a broadband desert but a provider desert, where there's one provider serving that community. So if you’re in an area that only has XYZ Internet and there’s no competition, you're stuck with whatever the quality of the broadband is regardless of the price or the quality. And bringing that back to the students, how can you complete an online college application if your internet keeps crashing or it won't refresh? One of the things people don't think about is every college and university has these really beautiful websites with all these videos and graphics and everything looks really, really impressive. Try to load that on a laptop from 2002 that's running on dial-up or something even slower.
People forget about this access piece. If a student can’t even get onto the website to see if they're interested in a college, they're not going to go there. They're going to look at something else, or they're going skip it all together. These are all of the pieces that are almost conspiring to keep rural students out of college.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.