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IYER: U.Va. should work to empower rural Virginian students

There is a noted decline in educational opportunities in rural Virginia — the University must work to uplift rural Virginian students

<p>Although these programs work to reduce the opportunity gap and increase educational accessibility for rural students, the University needs to move beyond simply encouraging rural Virginians to pursue its quality education.&nbsp;</p>

Although these programs work to reduce the opportunity gap and increase educational accessibility for rural students, the University needs to move beyond simply encouraging rural Virginians to pursue its quality education. 

From talented bluegrass musicians to towering Appalachian Mountains, rural parts of Virginia have a beautiful and unique culture. However, the region’s steady increase in socioeconomic issues, coupled with its persistent lack of adequate educational funding, showcases that rural Virginia is less politically visible and often ignored by those in power. To its credit, the University has dedicated more than one statement to increasing diversity, including economic diversity. However, if the University really wants to improve economic diversity, it must intensify its efforts by uplifting rural Virginians with initiatives on Grounds and increased funding for programs in rural areas, like that of U.Va-Wise.

Rural Virginia has recently experienced a large decline in population that endangers potential economic progress. Moreover, the blue-collar coal jobs that it was once known for have steadily dwindled, and this region has been slower to adopt new technology jobs due to Northern Virginia’s attempts to monopolize such industries. Today, rural Virginia has nearly double the poverty rate of urban areas of the state, and Southwest Virginia specifically has a higher percentage of households in poverty than the state as a whole.

Ultimately, all of these factors have together contributed to large educational gaps in rural Virginia — economic decline negatively impacts academic development and educational opportunities, and makes college less financially accessible. As of 2019, for instance, just 21 percent of rural Americans have a bachelor's degree compared to the 35 percent average in urban areas. This lack of education further exacerbates socioeconomic issues, creating a cycle in which depressed economic growth fails to stimulate educational opportunities and decreased educational opportunities contribute to less economic growth.

Through various programs and initiatives, the University has worked to accommodate students from rural backgrounds and build an economically diverse student body. For example, starting next year, the University will cover tuition and fees for Virginia families making under $100,000 a year. This greatly benefits rural in-state students, given rural Virginia’s significantly higher rates of low-income households.

Although efforts like this work to reduce the widening opportunity gap and increase educational accessibility for rural students, the University needs to move beyond simply encouraging rural Virginians to pursue its quality education. In other words, the University must work to more holistically accommodate rural students and their backgrounds once they arrive on Grounds. This could look like peer advisor programs specifically for rural students, mirroring the Peer Advisor Program already put in place by the Office of African-American Affairs. The plethora of peer mentorship programs already on Grounds should make creating one for rural students straightforward. By finding new ways to marshal programs like Hoos First and Hoos Connected and inflect them with a lens for rural students, the University could better support rural students and enhance the sense of community on Grounds.  

Most importantly, however, the University should work to build a more robust infrastructure for rural Virginia-specific partnerships that will create a college-to-job pipeline for companies and jobs in rural communities. Traditionally, college environments create a sort of “brain drain” wherein rural students feel the need to move to major cities to make the most of their college degrees. By creating college-to-job partnerships with companies in rural Virginia, however, the University would demonstrate that students can use their education in their hometowns and for their local economies — big cities do not have to be the only option post-graduation. 

Just this past year, the University’s Batten School of Public Policy has launched the Tadler Fellowship, providing the opportunity for 12 Master of Public Policy Tadler Fellows to work with Appalachian community leaders. This allows students to apply policy strategies to generate a social and environmental impact for Southwest Virginia. This program is a concrete step towards countering brain drain in rural areas, and must be expanded beyond the Batten school. 

The University is also working to counter rural brain drain on a larger-scale — it has established the College at Wise as an off-Grounds regional campus in rural Virginia. Founded originally by the University after demands for public colleges further west, the Wise campus exemplifies the University's commitment to providing quality education to rural students. Yet, recently, the College at Wise has faced funding cuts which have damaged an already severely underfunded school and undermined its attempts to recruit and train rural students. COVID also had a dampening effect on student engagement because the pandemic absolutely devastated extracurricular activities at the College at Wise. 

Without these clubs, the vibrancy of the tight-knit student community — one of the main advertising features of the College at Wise — stumbled. In light of this, the University and the College at Wise must work jointly to both better fund academic endeavors and bring back student activities, the latter of which plays a critical role in supplementing a classroom education. The College at Wise should be at the center of our efforts to boost educational and economic opportunities in Virginia by recruiting and educating rural students.  

Rural students have the potential to bring substantive political change to the often-forgotten parts of America and to contribute to college life both on Grounds and at Wise. Even more importantly, however, they deserve equitable and effective education like any other demographic. The University has a responsibility to represent and uplift all of Virginia — this means serving more than just the urban parts of this beautifully diverse state. 

Arjun Iyer is an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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