By JULIA ROBERTS GOAD
WILLIAMSON - High school students in Mingo County go to college at a higher rate than predicted than other counties in the state, based on income levels. What influences these teenagers to pursue higher education?
The Mingo County Redevelopment Authority heard about Mingo college-going rates from Dr. Sarah Beasley, Director of Statewide Academic Initiatives for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.
“The purpose of my research was to examine how rural culture affects success of low-income students and first generation college students, because they are the students that are less likely to go to college.”
Research has showed a negative image of rural college students, Dr. Beasley said, and she wanted to show the positive side of the issue.
She said students in Mingo County have a strong attachment to family and their local communities. She said students feel it is a choice: their education or their families.
“Students believe both getting away and staying close to their communities is important,” Dr. Beasley said. “Often those who wanted to stay in the county were majoring in fields that would enable them to find local jobs.”
She said students received a mixed message, both staying and leaving are encouraged.One student said she felt she was taught at her school that it didn’t matter where you went, as long as you left the area, you were succeeding.
Dr. Beasley said one of the reasons students gave for not attending college was they felt they needed to stay home and work to support their families, and that having Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College was a boon to those students.
“Having Southern here in the county is instrumental to Mingo County students,” she said. “About two-thirds of the students in the county that go to college, go to Southern.”
Students said their parents encouraged them to go to college in several ways in addition to financial support, Beasley’s research found. They discussed careers that required a degree, and simply told their children that college was a possibility, and not only a middle-class or upper-class value.
Community members, peers and educators are also crucial in the aspirations Mingo County students to attend college.
“Mentor programs are essential in serving students here,” Dr. Beasley said. “We need to replicate the support some students get at home for all students. Partnerships between K-12 and higher education could be expanded. I know that Southern has an office at Mingo Central, I think that’s terrific.”
“We need to find ways to include families in access programs,” she said. She cited one student who said her grandmother felt much better about a student attending college after the grandmother visited Concorde College’s campus, and felt her granddaughter would be safe.
Another part of the college going population of the county is non-traditional students, other than 18 to 24-year-olds. Dr. Beasley said there are 200,000 adults in the state who started college, but never finished. She said her research shows at least 400 of those students are in Mingo County.
“We are an aging population, in West Virginia,” she said. “Our high school age population is declining, so focusing on adults is important.”
“I think Mingo County should be proud of the college-going culture that is being cultivated,” Dr. Beasley said. “Family and community support here is really strong. I often hear from folks, including educators, that one of the problems in West Virginia is that we have a culture that doesn’t care about education or promote college going.”
She repeated a story she had heard from a “committed, well meaning educator” who had taken a group of students to visit a college campus.
As the bus drove to campus, they passed a student who did not attend the campus visit. The next day, that student’s father came to the teacher and complained that she was promoting college going, and told her his son was not going to college.
“We hear this kind of story a lot, and it illustrates people who don’t care about education,” Beasley said. “But I ask you to remember that on that bus there were 39 other students whose parents did allow them to go. I think its our duty to stop perpetuating that stereotype, that we don’t care about education.”
Beasley said 84 percent of Mingo County students do want to attend college, and almost 90 percent of West Virginia parents want their child to attend college.
“We West Virginians do care about education.”