More than one in two public-college students go to college within 50 miles of home. What does that mean for rural America? Plus, we’re working on a story about the steep loans some parents take on for their children’s college degrees.

Some thoughts about college and geography

Place shapes us. Who we are. What we stand for. What’s within reach. What’s far away.

Home towns, their good and their bad, are fundamental to identity. This is silly and superficial, maybe, but you can even see that in things like what Scott and I have long chosen as our profile pics on Slack. His is a logo for the Garden State Parkway, mine an old marketing slogan for Fort Wayne, Ind.: “Room for Dreams.” Where we’re from has a lasting impact.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of place as we build Open Campus and as we get ready for our road trip. (If you missed our first newsletter, we’re hitting the road later this month to talk with Americans about their relationships with college.)

We often talk about college decisions from the perspective of middle- and upper-income students who see it as a national market. But for most Americans, it doesn’t work that way. 

Two out of three undergraduates enroll at a campus within 25 miles of home, according to a recent report by Nick Hillman, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin. (He’s talking about students at both two- and four-year colleges. Narrow the parameters and the number is still really stark. More than half of students at public four-year colleges grew up less than 50 miles away.)

Simply having a college nearby is associated with high levels of postsecondary enrollment, he noted in another study. And the farther a student lives from a college, the less likely he or she is to enroll.

Remoteness creates challenge. Just 14 percent of the nation’s colleges are in rural counties, according to a recent report by Colleen Campbell at the Center for American Progress. Only 8 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders live there.

And the rural-urban gap is growing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 2015, about one in three urban adults held at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the department’s latest report on rural education. Just under one in five rural adults did. Urban areas have almost always had a higher share of people with college degrees, but those regions’ gains have outpaced rural regions’ since 2000. Among the reasons the report suggests: Urban areas tend to offer higher pay to workers with college degrees. 

The health of regional economies are closely tied to education. Rural counties with the lowest levels of educational attainment face higher poverty, unemployment, and population loss than rural counties with higher levels of education.

Follow the Mississippi River, the route we’re traveling, and these geographic divides materialize immediately. The river’s headwaters are in rural Clearwater County, Minn., where just over one in four residents has an associate’s degree or higher. Downstream, in Minneapolis, where we’ll start our trip, well over half of that urban county’s residents do. 

Along the way, the counties we’ll drive through that have the highest education levels are home to cities and college towns, places like Bloomington-Normal, Ill., and Iowa City, Iowa. Get outside of those and the story changes quickly. There’s a string of rural counties in southern Missouri where fewer than one in five residents has an associate’s degree or more.

education attainment by county for our road trip path

Urban areas, though, have problems of their own. Some of the counties with the highest education levels have the biggest gaps based on race and ethnicity, the Center for American Progress report points out.

We’ll see that on our road trip, too. In New Orleans, at the end of our route, the gulf is particularly wide. There, 65 percent of white adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Just 20 percent of black, Latino, and Native adults do.

We’re looking forward to exploring America’s towns and cities, their quirky attractions and pivotal histories, their varied landscapes and the contours of the lives they help define. And, in turn, we expect the stories we hear and the people we meet to help shape Open Campus and help us chart where we go from here. — Sara Hebel

Mom & Dad Are Borrowing

When we talk about the mountains of student debt in America, we often don’t focus on one of the big drivers for some families—the Parent PLUS loan. We’re working with a group of Northwestern University graduate students this month on a package of stories about family borrowing, looking deeply at how this continues to disproportionately affect students and families at historically black colleges. Look for the stories to run in USA Today in a few weeks. And if you’ve got thoughts about the Parent PLUS program, let us know.

Getting Off the Ground

We’ve been accepted as members of the Institute for Nonprofit News. INN is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and now has more than 230 members. This is the group’s mission:

To provide education and business support services to our nonprofit member organizations and promote the value and benefit of public-service and investigative journalism.

Advisory Board

We’re putting together a group of advisors to help guide the development of Open Campus, asking people with backgrounds in higher education, journalism, and nonprofit management. Here’s the list so far:


Predictive analytics are boosting college graduation rates, but do they also invade privacy and reinforce racial inequities?
A third of U.S. colleges are using predictive analytics to boost graduation rates. Critics fear the algorithms may invade privacy and reinforce inequities. (The Hechinger Report)
48 male patients say University of Southern California doctor sexually abused them — and the university was warned
USC is already reeling from multiple high-profile scandals, including the nationwide admissions scam in which wealthy and high-profile parents were accused of paying bribes and committing fraud to get their children admitted. Now, the claims that USC was repeatedly warned about the doctor raise sharp questions about how the university investigated threats to its students’ well-being, and whether it has done more to protect its own reputation than the safety of its community members. (USC Annenberg Media)
Minnesota colleges hunting for talent lean more heavily on search firms
The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State system together have paid more than $10 million in the past five years for outside help in recruiting administrators. (Star Tribune)
UNC System interim president didn’t disclose corporate board seats that paid millions on ethics forms
William Roper, the current interim president of the University of North Carolina system and former longtime CEO of the UNC Health Care System, failed to disclose his seats on the boards of major corporations between 2011 and 2019, at the same time as those corporations did business with the state. (WBTV)

More on the broader issue of presidents on boards from Inside Higher Ed
UC faculty to Elsevier: Restart negotiations, or else
A group of prominent University of California faculty say they will step away from the editorial boards of scientific journals published by Elsevier until the publishing giant agrees to restart negotiations, which stalled in February and left the 10-campus system without subscriptions to some of the world’s top scholarly journals.From the letter they sent:“Pending the signing of a new contract with UC, we wish to inform you that we are suspending our editorial services to Cell Press journals. We very much hope to hear of an appropriate resolution and resume our productive relationships with Cell Press.” (Berkeley News)


Open Campus road trip route

We’re heading on what we’re calling the Open Campus Back-to-School Road Trip from August 20-28. While we’re keeping the route flexible, our plan is to hit the following places:

  • Minneapolis, Minn..
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Bloomington, Ill.
  • St. Louis, Mo.
  • Memphis, Tenn.
  • Little Rock, Ark.
  • Jackson, Miss.
  • New Orleans, La.

Both Sara and Scott will be back in New Orleans for the Online News Association annual meeting from Sept. 12-14.

From Sept 23-24, we’ll be in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Education Writers Association fall Higher Ed Seminar.

Finally, we love hearing from you. Let us know what you think we should be doing, who we should be talking to, and stories we should be pursuing. You can reach us both at

One more request: please share our weekly newsletter with other people you think would be interested. They can sign up here.

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus