Tulia is an agricultural hamlet of 5,000 souls in the middle of the Texas Panhandle, just under an hour south of Amarillo. It’s where 18-year-old Tawnee Flowers grew up and went to high school.
I meet her at her parents’ house, where a metal boot brush sits beside the door, spelling TAWNEE in wrought iron. Last year, she started classes at South Plains College in Levelland, and it’s been an adjustment.
“I’ve never had homework,” she tells me, sitting at her mom’s kitchen table. “I’ve never had to, like, sit down and actually focus for two or three hours like I do now in college.”
She’s studying radiology at South Plains, but she says the math classes are killing her – and Tawnee isn’t someone who’s afraid of hard work. Every weekend, she drives 100 miles home from Levelland for a job at her hometown YMCA, earning cash to keep herself fed during the school week. On top of the commuting and all the studying, Tawnee is facing internal struggles. She’s frustrated her high school in Tulia didn’t prepare her for college-level math.
“I feel like I’ve been cheated,” she says. “I feel like the teachers that taught me didn’t try their very best to prepare me for college because everything is a lot different than I anticipated.”
It’s a complaint echoed frequently by college students from rural areas. Across the U.S., rural students don’t attend college as often as their suburban and urban counterparts. And when they do go to college, they’re less likely to graduate. One reason: many students don’t feel academically prepared for college, which may be one reason some higher education institutions in rural parts of the state have retention rates half those of big schools like UT-Austin and Texas A&M.
At A&M, half of students graduate within four years. But at Sul Ross State University in the Big Bend town of Alpine, only 13 percent of students graduate within that timeframe. The four-year completion rate is a little better, 20-percent, at another rural university, West Texas A&M, located in the salt-of-the-earth Panhandle college town of Canyon. There, I meet with another former rural high schooler, Allison Ries, now director of advising services at West Texas A&M. Ries hails from Crosbyton, population 1,700, and she understands the students’ struggles.
“We often see students who do come from rural areas needing developmental courses,” she says. “It’s not necessarily that they’re not capable of fulfilling the content, it’s that there’s definitely a gap in their foundation.”
Ries says, for this reason, many rural students decide to forego college or leave soon after arriving. In west Texas, the academic problem can be exacerbated by the wide-open spaces. Out here, some students have to travel as far as 140 miles to reach the nearest university, and that can make quitting school easier when the going gets tough.
So, what can be done? South Plains student Tawnee Flowers says she’d start in rural high schools. “Really bring in better teachers, or teachers that want to help the kids learn.” Tawnee’s solution essentially comes down to funding.
Dr. Don Rogers, executive director of the Texas Rural Education Association, agrees.
“Whatever we do, it’s probably gonna cost more money,” he says. One issue, according to Rogers, is that the state has shut down statewide math and reading academies, and that has hurt rural students. “Those special programs, particularly reading, are just critical.”
West Texas A&M president Walter Wendler concurs that the problem is largely one of funding. And while he can’t get rural schools more money, Wendler tells me his university may have hit on a solution of sorts to the Panhandle education issue. Next year, West Texas A&M plans to begin offering a doctoral program specifically designed to create graduates who can reinvigorate rural schools.
“It’s an applied doctorate,” he tells me, “and it is focused on leadership and management of small school systems, like the many, many school systems that exist in the Texas Panhandle.”
Wendler says he hopes the Doctor of Education program will eventually translate into more west Texas students being prepared for college, so they can thrive in school – and in life.
“Those kids have aspirations, just as if they lived in The Woodlands or River Oaks or Tarrytown in Austin or the West End in Dallas.”
Wendler said he hopes that soon, students in rural west Texas will have access to an education good enough to match their dreams.
That’s a big hope. But at least, says Wendler, this is a start.