Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an OpenCampus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia. (Subscribe to this newsletter here.)

Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: What’s in a Name?
  • 02: Roadside Attractions
  • 03: In the Sticks
  • 04: Laying Seeds
  • 05: Postcards

01: What’s in a Name?

Rural. It’s our favorite national calling card. Beloved by politicians in jean-jacketed commercials. CEOs drumming up common man bona fides. Ice cream ads that melt with nostalgia.

But what does “rural” actually mean?

I thought I knew the answer. I was certain. But then I thought. You try. Go on.

I took this job because the opportunities and obstacles facing rural America have always fascinated me. After all, I grew up with a foot in both worlds in Georgia, the oldest of 10 kids to a conservative Southern Catholic mother and liberal Greek Jewish Canadian father.

That fascination was a major reason I spent 2017 visiting all 50 states as the political correspondent for OZY Magazine, writing about everything from Somali farmers in Maine and the battle for broadband in southwest Virginia to the pipeline fight launched from the right on the Savannah River and Russian boars causing havoc in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Yet, as I’ve spent the last month talking to rural folks and rural researchers, advocates, experts, I was shocked to find that nobody has a good answer.

If Socrates had actually said wisdom was knowing you know nothing, I suppose he would be pretty damn proud of us. Pop quiz: What did you imagine, when I asked you to think about what rural meant?

Rolling Midwestern or Southern farmland is worlds apart from pastoral New England or the arid Southwest. Ski or beach towns go from tumbleweed to bustling during tourist season — as do remote university towns, which swell far past the federal definition of rural during the school year.

The question gets especially tricky when you get academic. It’s difficult reconciling how CU-Boulder, the University of Michigan and North Dakota State can all show up on a (remarkably SEO-friendly) list of “best rural colleges.”

In my faux-Socratic questioning, I was given highly scientific answers from experts: That rural was defined as places where tractors caused traffic jams. Where there was maybe one stoplight, but certainly not three. Another said it was like porn: ya just knew it when you saw it (thanks a lot, y’all).

Even if we don’t have the answer yet, one thing is clear: defining “rural” matters. Especially in higher ed, where such designations expose real societal divides: in who gets to college, who graduates, and how easy it is to do things like access the internet, to name just a few.

We’re going to explore these definitional challenges in detail in a second. But first, take a break from my ramblin’ and look out the window. After all, no trip would be complete without …

02. Roadside Attractions

  • A “Giving Pledge” for rural colleges? Just $100M could fund 50 rural professors in perpetuity, while wealthy donors could fully endow at least one rural college in every U.S. state for $5B — less than the $5.5B Jeff Bezos spent going to space for four minutes.
  • The Tar Heel State steps up. The just-signed North Carolina state budget includes a 7.9% increase for its community college system, its largest funding boost in a decade. The $1.3B two-year budget includes a $15/hour minimum wage and $15M to expand broadband access at 25 rural community colleges.
  • What funding can do. Fayetteville State received its largest state budget allocation in over 35 years. That $159M allowed the HBCU to become the newest university to join the NC Promise program, offering $1K annual tuition to in-state students. Its chancellor, Darrell Allison, has led some innovative projects in recent months for FSU’s nearly 7K students, 80% of whom are minority students and from rural areas.
  • Beef, it’s what’s for dinner. Farm to kitchen is all the rage, but, starting next fall, two rural Minnesota community colleges will prep the next gen of butchers in an oft-overlooked part of that process: slaughter.
  • And if that isn’t enough beef… The New York Times went to Mississippi in its education edition’s “The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools,” but two scholars argue in the Daily Yonder that the piece contributes to a nothing-but-failure trope that ignores proven successes in rural ed — a narrative used in the Jim Crow South to justify the gutting of Black schools and Black teachers that persists today.
The view from Deerwood Station Wild Horse Eco-Sanctuary in Albany, Wyoming/Nick Fouriezos

03. In the Sticks

Far too often, rural areas are defined only by what they are not.

That is literally the case with the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines rural as “an area that is not urban.” Both it and the Office of Management and Budget draw that line based on population — the former at 2,500, the latter at 10,000. Meanwhile, the USDA has a bit more flexibility, often adjusting requirements based on the specific grants it is offering — although it still almost exclusively uses population as its barometer.

Consider colleges in rural areas. Healthy universities attract more students and faculty. In turn, businesses and services grow to support them. The inevitable population growth that follows causes the most successful rural college towns to eclipse the population limits set by government agencies.

In other words, the reward for rural success is to no longer be called rural.

These population-based definitions ensure a perpetual narrative of rural malaise, limited by myopic datasets that invalidate rural stories the moment they become success stories.

Some rural schools are failing, but we are also failing them. And that failure has real ramifications.

Two-fifths of college students struggled with internet and computer access due to the pandemic, with 57% of students attending rural colleges experiencing basic needs insecurity — the most of any group attending four-year colleges.

How much of the $65B allocated to improving broadband in the recently-passed infrastructure bill will go to rural students, and how much of it will be missed due to rural maps that the FCC itself admits are faulty?

Part Q of the Higher Education Act of 1965 promised “rural development grants” for “rural-serving institutions.” Only, the law didn’t actually allocate any specific funds to that mission … nor did it bother to define what a “rural-serving institution” was, instead punting that task to the states.

A half-century later, rural students are more likely than their urban peers to graduate from high school, yet are less likely to enroll in and graduate from college.

Experts are trying to create a fuller picture of rural life, incorporating factors such as population density and remoteness. Acknowledging rural identity, regardless of population, is a critical first step.

My goal with Mile Markers is to build a community that improves rural higher ed by better understanding it. My reporting centers around four pillars: Defining rural, complicating narratives about rural students and colleges, examining what the data says or doesn’t say, and studying the gap between policy and practice.

If you have tips, ideas, suggestions, or critique along those lines, please respond to this email or set time on my calendar.

I love coffee, and collecting mugs. Forward this email to at least 5 people — either cc’ing or forwarding it to me — and I’ll enter you into a drawing to win a rural themed-mug … personally curated by me!

04: Laying Seeds

  • ARRC is defining rural-serving institutions. Funded by a $428K grant from Ascendium, the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges at Appalachian State University is creating a map tool and corresponding data set outlining the spectrum of RSIs — expected as early as January, it could help federal policymakers direct funding toward rural students the way HBCU and HSI designations support Black and Hispanic students.
  • Matt Newlin is hosting the Rural College Student Experience podcast. In a recent episode, Newlin spotlighted Abigail Seldin and her organization’s SHSF Public Transit Map showing that 43% of community and technical colleges don’t have a public transit stop within walking distance to campus … a problem in a country where nearly half of adults (much less students) would either struggle to, or couldn’t, afford a surprise $400 expense like a car repair.
  • The HOPE Center is assessing #RealCollege expenses. The nonprofit conducts research into student needs that sometimes aren’t covered by scholarships, everything from food insecurity to housing costs, while working to provide grants and other resources to cover those costs.
  • The Education Design Lab is building BRIDGES. Thanks to a $1.9M grant, funded by Ascendium, the nonprofit EDL is helping five community colleges improve college access and meet local workforce needs over three years.

This is a good place to mention that my beat — as the only national reporter solely dedicated to covering rural higher ed in the country — is also funded by Ascendium, which I will cover the same as I would any other source, per our editorial independence policy.

If this reporting is meaningful to you, please consider donating to OpenCampus. You can also help by sharing this newsletter with your friends (although, honestly, your enemies are fine by me too).

05: Postcards

In the future, I’ll be filing dispatches from across America, with coming editions from rural Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. I’d love to hear from you where I should head next. Feel free to send me tips or photos from your favorite places — and for now, I’ll just leave you with this from San Diego, which I’m visiting while attending a friend’s wedding.

Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.