Times-Union (Albany), January 27, 2008: A Learning Curve

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First published: Sunday, January 27, 2008

The of Ticonderoga have a lot going for them that other places may envy. Their halls are safe. Their children are part of a small community that keeps an eye on them as they grow up.

But they’re also being hammered by poverty.

Nearly one out of every two students in the town’s school system qualifies for free, or reduced cost, lunch. Just 20 years ago, that figure was at 12 percent.

Ticonderoga, a town of 5,100 on the shores of Lake Champlain, struggles every day with something more and more rural communities are forced to confront: a surging tide of poverty that threatens to keep those students from ever attaining a college education.

This tide is eroding what communities expect of their children, and hope for their futures. It’s keeping them from college not so much because they can’t afford it, but because they can’t imagine it.

And while we don’t know how to fix poverty, our organization, College For Every Student, has developed a proven track record of how to overcome its effects.

In recent months, a growing chorus has expressed concern about the rising costs of attending college, and the threat this poses to accessibility. Congressional legislation is on the horizon to cut college costs. Harvard University and several other schools recently have announced changes to their financial aid policies to make a college education more affordable. These are important steps, and we know from our work with school districts across the country how expensive a college education can seem.

For many rural children, though, tuition is just the final hurdle they face on the road to college. Drug use, dropping in cities, is increasing in rural areas around the country. Teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases also are on the rise. The common denominator these areas share is poverty: Of the nation’s 250 most impoverished counties, 244 are rural.

The key to developing rural communities is to develop the people who live in them. It all starts with education — and all of us must get started.

At College for Every Student, we form working partnerships between rural schools and colleges that introduce children from kindergarten through 12th grade to the possibilities that higher education can bring. In Ticonderoga, and throughout the Adirondacks, students and instructors from Paul Smith’s College mentor younger students, coach them on community service projects, make regular appearances in their schools and, perhaps most importantly, bring high schoolers to campus to expose them to worlds they have never seen before.

Results tell us these measures work. Last year, College for Every Student worked with 15,000 students across the country. Almost all of those students come from low-income families who have never sent anyone to college. Many attend rural schools.

Of the 700 high school seniors we worked with, 97 percent are now in college. That’s nearly six times the typical rate for that demographic. In December, Ticonderoga’s high school was ranked among the top 2 percent nationwide by U.S. News & World Report for its work in moving students toward college. The rating considered factors such as poverty, the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and the number going on to college.

Today, it is almost impossible to break out of the poverty cycle without a college degree. Good, well-paying jobs, the kind that are becoming so difficult to find in rural America, depend on one.

Perversely, this is one of the very reasons we find that expectations for rural students are so low.

In urban areas, families increasingly understand that sending a child to college gives that child a chance to move ahead. The children recognize it, too. On our visits to high schools in New York City, we have read essays students have written about their aspirations. Each has a similar tale and theme: The students see college as a pathway to a better life in spite of their incarcerated fathers, overburdened mothers, dangerous neighborhoods.

But rural families often feel threatened when their children want to go off to college — because when they go, they may be leaving for good. Families don’t pass the dream along to their children. And the children don’t pick it up on their own.

Our work at College for Every Student does not ensure a child who goes off to college will come home. Other forces, such as the economy, and economic development, hold greater sway over that.

But we all have a practical interest in seeing that this portion of our social and economic base is not left behind. And we have a moral obligation to students in rural schools to give them the chance to make the decision of how to live their lives, rather than imprisoning them in a cage built of our own neglect.

What College for Every Student does isn’t rocket science, and our practices are hardly patented. Any community with the right resources — time, interest and care, more than anything — can accomplish similar results. These partnerships depend on the implementation and sustained support of these programs by community leaders, educators and parents. Much of our work starts with convincing parents that these are worthy goals that can be achieved. Once they believe that, we are well on our way to changing the learning culture at a school and the educational aspirations of the young people involved.

On May 29 and 30, College for Every Student and Paul Smith’s are hosting a national symposium at the college to discuss these issues, and many others. We welcome anybody with an interest in these issues to attend. For more information, go to

Change is difficult — but it can be achieved.

Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College For Every Student, a nonprofit organization based in Cornwall, Vt. John Mills is president of Paul Smith’s College in Franklin County and a member of College for Every Student’s national task force.

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