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For Colleges, A Rural Reckoning

Spooked by rising hostility in Trump country, elite schools are seeking small-town students.That dislocation reflects the widening gulf between white, working-class, rural America and the nation’s more selective institutions of higher education. Elite colleges have tried for years to address a proportional decline of students arriving from areas beyond big cities and suburbs, but their worries have sharpened since the election of Donald Trump. Recent surveys show mounting skepticism, especially among Mr. Trump’s constituents, about the cost and worth of college. Republican lawmakers have also proposed cuts to federal funding and tax breaks for higher education.In response, some institutions are redoubling their efforts to court students from rural—and politically conservative—areas, much as they have long sought out minority students from inner cities. “These predominantly white students from low-income and working-class families have been overlooked for a long time,” said Bob Freund, who runs a nonprofit program based at Franklin & Marshall that has helped place rural students in Pennsylvania colleges, including Ms. Richey. “It’s just beginning to change.”The education gap between rural and urban residents has been growing for decades. Though college attendance has risen for both groups, the rural rise has been smaller, and the gap has more than doubled—from seven points in 1980 to 16 points by 2015. Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown admissions biases against rural students with financial needs.

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Wall Street Journal