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Dull Statistics, Unless You're One of Them
February 1, 2010 - 12:29am

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I probably never mentioned it, but I’m originally from Southern Illinois, a geographically and culturally unique region that’s been marginalized for decades.

Recently I was invited to speak at my old high school about writing, teaching, and growing up in that town. It was always my impression that the school had provided us a good education, something I planned to mention. Coincidentally, the day I drove down, the local news was reporting that the high school had won a U.S. News & World Report Bronze Medal in their nationwide “Best High Schools” rankings.

The award, on closer inspection, factored in the expected gap between poverty and achievement, which drove the school’s score higher. A teacher told me that 40% of their student body are at or below the poverty line; U.S. News determined that 44.2% are “economically disadvantaged.” Evidently the assumption is that poverty will necessarily make those who suffer it less educationally fit as well.

Other teachers that day asked if I ever saw any of their former students in my classes at our large state university upstate. I had to admit I never had, in 10 years on the job. But, I said, there are 30,000 undergrads on campus, and I teach no more than 100-250 in a calendar year. (In big lecture classes I might never get to know where students are from.)

The guidance counselor told me their students were being accepted, but many never matriculated. “Affordable” state university education—tuition, fees, housing and incidentals currently start at about $23,000 per year—means one thing to many who live in urban and suburban Chicagoland, and another thing entirely in the chronically economically-depressed bottom third of the state.

According to university data, 38 undergrads from that county enrolled at the university in Fall 2005 (the most recent data available). In all 30,453 enrolled that fall, but only 26,761 were from within the state. That means .14 percent of in-state undergrads came from Williamson County. The county’s population in 2005 (63,617) was .5 percent of the state’s. The difference between the rate of enrollment at the university and the state population was nearly -3.6 times in deficit.

On the other hand, 2,177 undergrads from Lake County, Chicago’s wealthy North Shore, enrolled at the university in Fall 2005. That means 8.1 percent of in-state undergrads came from Lake County. Lake County’s population (702,682) was 5.51% of the state’s. The difference between the rate of enrollment at the university and the state population was +1.47 times in surplus.

This seems to mean that, populations adjusted, someone from Williamson County is more than five times less likely to enroll at the flagship university in the state system than someone from Lake County, where median home values can run to three-quarter million dollars.

Put another way, Lake County’s population was 11 times that of Williamson County’s. But Lake County’s enrollment was not merely 11 times more. If it was, you’d multiply Williamson County’s 38 students and get 418 students from Lake. Instead, Lake got 2,177. Power has a way of serving itself at table first, and Champaign-Urbana is sometimes called “Chicago South” when school’s in session.

The southernmost 16 counties in the state—Alexander, Pulaski, Massac, Union, Johnson, Pope, Hardin, Jackson, Williamson, Saline, Gallatin, Randolph, Perry, Franklin, Hamilton, and White—fared about the same. Their population in 2005 was 2.7 percent of the state’s. They enrolled .88 percent of all in-state undergrads, which makes for a deficit of a little more than three times.

No doubt it matters that some school districts on the North Shore can spend nearly $19,000 per student, who can then afford to be more competitive than those in a place like my hometown, where district revenue is only $8,000 per student. It’s also possible there are fewer young people in the population of Southern Illinois, or fewer who want to go to college, or to go to college upstate. (I doubt all three.)

In fact, none of these figures may tell a meaningful story, but the possibility of inequity touches a nerve. I was admitted to this university from high school, but when financial complications arose, an administrator here told me I’d have to drive up to do paperwork in person, on the chance that it would lead to aid. I didn’t have a car, or even money for a bus ride, difficulties which will sound ridiculous to many, I suppose. In the end the problem felt insurmountable, the final straw, and I went first to a community college on a scholarship then quickly to the army.

Bothered by the high school guidance counselor’s worries last week, and being a curious guy, I asked the Director of Undergraduate Admissions here if she knew of regional disparity. She replied, “We have been doing more in southern Illinois to encourage students to apply and choose Illinois, but we still have work to do.”

She said her office could produce applicable data based on zip codes, but that it would be weeks or months before they could get to it.

“I am always open to suggestions on how we can better recruit the southern region,” she said.

I’m open to offering suggestions but had never considered the problem before. What books or other resources are available on suburban and urban regions using disproportionately more state resources than rural ones? What solutions might there be?

 

 

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