East Georgia State University (Nick Fouriezos)

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

Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: Postcards: The Biggest Enrollment Drop in Georgia.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: Tim Kaine’s Rural Med School Bet.
  • 03: In the Sticks: Test-Free’s Effect on Rural College.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: Rural Scholarships … and Greek Hillbillies.

01: Postcards

The lake is sparkling on a mid-seventies November day at East Georgia State College in Swainsboro. In the past, that surprisingly sunny weather might have meant coeds sprawled across the tree-lined quad, playing volleyball or studying for approaching exams. But campus is noticeably quiet, the only activity occurring between bells, as a few students shuffle between classes.

Two weeks before, the University System of Georgia released a report revealing East Georgia suffered the worst enrollment decline in the state, a 16.2% drop, with South Georgia State, another rural two-year college, experiencing the only other double-digit drop.

Visiting East Georgia, I assumed, like others might, that such losses could be chalked up to economic scarcity as a result of the pandemic. In the wake of the Great Recession in 2008, college enrollment surged, though, with most of that growth driven by older students — looking to upskill or shift careers — opting for more affordable two-year colleges.

That hasn’t happened this time around. The last two years have seen the largest national enrollment drop in at least half a century. And that drop has been mostly driven by losses at community colleges, which are more likely to enroll first-gen, low-income and minority students.

I asked marketing coordinator Katelyn Moore what had changed at East Georgia, which went from 2,741 students in Fall 2020 to 2,415 students in Fall 2021 across its three campuses. The college serves a predominantly rural region of 24 counties, and is a majority-minority institution: 41% Black, 7.3% Hispanic, and 4.8% multiracial.

Two years into the pandemic, few current students remember what Moore says used to be a lively campus in Swainsboro. “We’ve been going through COVID long enough that everybody who was here is gone,” Moore said.

For seven years, the college’s president and top school officials led a two-week bus tour visiting 25 local high schools. But that annual event, which spread awareness about attending college to thousands of students — some of whom would likely have attended East Georgia — also was shuttered by pandemic closures and a thinner budget.

Those trends have hurt East Georgia. But in Moore’s opinion, the biggest culprit for its enrollment collapse was clear: the University System of Georgia’s decision to waive ACT and SAT requirements for the 2021 academic year.

“That really hurt us. It allowed students who would have come to us, or another access institution, to get into bigger colleges,” Moore said. “The test exemptions created a huge ripple effect. Not just for us, but for all community access colleges.”

If ending SAT and ACT testing requirements leads some to skip smaller rural colleges altogether, then that could be a promising development for students from those areas — who maybe once wouldn’t have considered themselves UGA or Georgia Tech material but feel confident applying there now.

However, that creates a complicating issue for two-year “access” colleges like East Georgia, which often pitch themselves as ways for undergrads to eventually get to their first-choice four-year universities — and are now stumbling upon an unintended consequence of the shift against testing …

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Will Colleges Fill the Gaps Amid Rural Hospital Closures?. Kaiser Health News explores the tragic closure of Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert, one of 19 rural hospitals in the U.S. that closed in 2020 — the most since 2005 for a single year. With nursing majors among the most popular in rural colleges nationwide — and, at Cuthbert’s Andrew College, the most popular — could students help stop the bleeding? If the small, private Methodist college went that route, it would be a return to its early history as a hospital for wounded Civil War soldiers.
  • Sen. Tim Kaine Tries to Get Rural Kids to Med School. Recruiting quality physicians is a key challenge for rural hospitals. The Virginia Senator is trying to fix the rural physician pipeline by supporting rural, underserved and minority students in his Expanding Medical Education Act, reintroduced Monday with the hopes of wrapping it into the $2T Build Back Better bill — even as his West Virginia counterpart Joe Manchin seemed to scuttle any hopes for BBB getting passed this year.
  • Flashback: Kaine’s Reflections on Rural. Kaine has a soft spot for rural, as the former VP candidate told me back in 2017, discussing his wife’s Roanoke roots and the feelings of loss in the region as each census further concentrates political representation in the tony Washington D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia.

“This is a challenge of a statewide official in Virginia, but also in any other state — to fully represent everybody, whether or not they are living in a populous region,” Kaine said. “I don’t have to remind myself to take seriously their concerns; I have a family telling me what I ought to know.”

  • “Too Queer for the Country, Too Country for College?” Wyoming native Ty C. McNamee discusses his recent ASHE-presented paper with Brody C. Tate on the Rural Student Experience podcast, exploring how their multiple identities as rural, working class queer men affected them in their higher ed pathways, as well as the experiences of dozens of rural LGBTQ+ students they interviewed. That discussion continues on the Student Affairs NOW podcast.

“I even had a professor at a conference say he didn’t believe rural identity existed … these students feel like it’s hard to even acknowledge their background,” Ty C. McNamee to Open Campus.

East Georgia State College (Nick Fouriezos)

03: In the Sticks

The anti-testing movement exploded during the pandemic, from 1,070 test-optional schools before 2020 to 1,815 not requiring the ACT or SAT for the fall 2022 class. Harvard recently made headlines for announcing it wouldn’t require the SAT or ACT through 2026.

More importantly, more accessible institutions are rethinking tests too. The City University of New York system, which includes more than a quarter million students, is test-blind until at least 2023. The University of California has already banned the tests permanently, while the California State system is expected to soon follow suit.

Going test-optional or test-blind has undeniably gained steam, as decades of research suggests such tests favor affluent white and Asian students. But if that shift leads to significant student declines at smaller colleges, many rural communities could take a hit.

Across Georgia, 21 of 26 state public schools saw losses, although overall enrollment was down just 851 students (or 0.2%). The biggest dips were at state colleges like East Georgia, where enrollments dropped almost 7%. Meanwhile, large research universities grew by 2.6%, with highly selective Georgia Tech up more than 10%.

What Georgia witnessed in its pandemic year of waiving tests was not so much an enrollment drop as an enrollment transfer — with large Atlanta area universities surging as smaller, regional colleges withered.

For most schools, fewer students means fewer dollars (whether in tuition or in state funding), at a time when many rural colleges were already reeling during the pandemic. Still, those students may benefit from the new opportunities. And is that enrollment transfer even because of waived tests, as Moore suggested?

We don’t know … yet. There are places like Florida, which didn’t waive its test requirements but still saw a 5.5% drop at its community colleges. As Leslie Daugherty of the nonprofit Education Design Lab notes, the theory of a test-related dip assumes the majority of lost students are traditional 18-year-old students.

That may be a faulty assumption. California’s community colleges saw a 15% drop to fall below 2 million students for the first time in three decades in 2021 — but nearly one-third of the enrollment decline came from students 40 and older, the community college system’s vice chancellor told California legislators.

Compared with past recessions, the biggest difference for those nontraditional students was that the pandemic forced kids home from school.

“The working adult, the single mom, the ‘new majority learners,’ as we call them: They faced a choice, but for them, it wasn’t really a choice — your kids are home now, so their education comes first,” Daugherty says.

In general, data suggests that colleges that went test optional got more diverse and more prepared candidates, says Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing: “There are a lot of factors. Attributing one year of change to any variable is a little dicey.”

Still, it’s worth watching the continued move toward going test-free for its effect on rural enrollment. And we might not have to wait long to start getting answers.

Georgia has already announced it will return to including SATs and ACTs in admissions beginning with the fall 2022 class — a trend some states will likely follow, even as others move away from testing for good.

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

  • UGA is Recognizing Rural. The Rural Scholars program offers a $7,000 annual scholarship to high-performing students planning to get an Ag degree from one of 108 Georgia counties defined as rural. Its inaugural class is only four students, but the program combines with the “ALL Georgia” program to make college more accessible for rural students. View more rural scholarships here.
  • The Daily Yonder and Rural Assembly Are Querying Rural Journalists. The two organizations are considering forming a Rural Journalist Collective — if you work in rural comms or news, consider filling out their survey (as the only national reporter dedicated to rural higher ed, I could use the backup!).
  • Get to Know Me a Little Better. The Daily Yonder was kind enough to interview me about the new beat. Check out the interview to learn more about my 50-state journey … and my unlikely relationship to ancient Greek hillbillies.

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