More Of Oregon’s Rural Boys Opt Out Of College As Urban-Rural Gap Widens

Over the last decade, the share of Oregon high school graduates moving on to community college or university within 16 months of leaving high school has plunged. And research shows that fewer young men are in college, especially at 4-year schools.

While this was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, even before COVID-19 rural Oregon boys were a concern. Although it’s not yet clear how the pandemic impacted rural boys’ college enrollment, it’s unlikely things got much better and the declines have widened racial equity gaps.

There are several reasons for the decline- college costs way too much, and mental health factors post-COVID-19 mean kids feel stressed out and stretched thin.


Oregon Males From Rural Areas Opting Out Of College

Education Northwest, a project sponsored by The Ford Family Foundation  (TFFF) found that in 2019 only 35% of Oregon’s rural male students went on to two- or four-year colleges in the fall straight after graduating, whereas half of Oregon’s rural girls did. The rate was even lower among low-income rural boys and boys of color.

TFFF’s director of postsecondary success with the Ford Family Foundation, Denise Callahan, said it’s not a group one necessarily thinks of yet at any given time, there is a significant group not participating in education. Callahan said, “It’s going to come back and bite us.”

The declining number of boys going to college has emerged across the country but in rural areas, the gender gaps are wider, and enrollment by boys is far lower. For example, in 2021, only 43% of Madras High School seniors went on to postsecondary education but just one in three of these students were boys.


Reasons For Low College Enrollment Rate In Rural Oregon

Because of the steep barriers they face, Oregon’s rural students have been less likely than those in cities and suburbs to pursue higher education for a long time. Persistent poverty in rural communities combined with a lack of access to advanced coursework in far-flung schools, were identified as causes in the TFFF 2021 Education Northwest report.

In one of the largest schools in sparsely populated Malheur County, Oregon High, only 43% of 2021 graduates made it to community college or university within 16 months, a rate well below the state average of 56%. In the county, only 15% of adults have a four-year degree, and college simply isn’t on the radar for every family according to Principal Ken Martinez.

Although some students want to become the first in their families to graduate from high school, Malheur County has the state’s highest poverty rate. The immediate need to support themselves and/or their families leads students to choose a working wage, deferring full-time work to earn a degree.

Martinez confirmed that entering the workforce now at $15 an hour means students don’t feel they have to wait for four years. He said, “That pull is today.”

See also: The 5 Highest Paying (And Lowest Paying) College Degrees You Can Get In The Portland Metro Area


At Madras High there is a distinct gender gap with most of the girls going off to college, often chasing careers as veterinarians or therapists. While many of the boys stick around to work in agriculture. Most of the guys seem content as their friends and family business is here. And boys often feel more pressure to follow in family footsteps, having grown up helping dads and grandpas around the farms.

Many school leavers are unsure whether they will be able to afford a university education and often opt to take over the family farm. The cost of college is a factor in deciding their futures.

In rural Oregon, men without a college degree have the edge. Sam Loza, college and career counselor at Madras High, said throughout most of the year, the majority of students who come seeking help with scholarships and applications are young women. Yet suddenly, in late spring, there’s a wave of seniors- mostly male, just beginning to plan their next steps months before high school ends who seek her advice.

Loza thinks perhaps they just kind of expect that the doors are just open and they’ll walk across the stage straight into a job where they will be successful and make money.

There is some truth to this, as men in rural America have a better shot than women at earning a good wage without a college degree according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The center indicated that over 50% of rural men with just a high school diploma held what they consider to be a good job, paying at least $43,000 at age 25. Only 21% of women with no college experience managed to secure similar employment.

For students, struggles with mental health and affordability compound the challenges. As Oregon’s biggest Universities are increasing tuition fees, students come under increasing pressure to perform, creating anxiety and depression. Most don’t want to be working the cash register forever but often feel kind of stuck. As rural Oregon boys are not choosing college,  the urban-rural divide widens.

A senior research leader with Education Northwest, Michelle Hodara, doesn’t know whether it will continue to decline but said, “We don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t.”

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