SC State University overlooks parked equipment at the Railroad Corner, a crossroads the city of Orangeburg is considering redeveloping. (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
  • 02: Roadside Attractions
  • 03: In the Sticks
  • 04: Laying Seeds

01: Postcards

Motels with fading shingle roofs. Tire shops with graffitied signs. Pawn stores and auto title loan lenders only outnumbered by churches. A mobile home park and a mobile home supply shop.

These are common hallmarks of poverty in rural America. There is no inherent shame in them.

However, things don’t have to be this way.

The small city within a large swath of rural South Carolina somehow is home to not one, but two, HBCUs: Claflin University and South Carolina State University.

Those two universities present tremendous opportunities for the surrounding community: President Joe Biden visited Orangeburg just last month to deliver the commencement speech at South Carolina State, which is also Rep. Jim Clyburn’s alma mater.

South Carolina State has an elementary school on campus that serves the community, and a lot of education majors serve as teachers to them. The students at both HBCUs emphasize volunteering, with everything from the boys and girls club to charity walks.

“Orangeburg is a very rural community, and the institutions provide a lot of jobs,” says Denise Smith, a higher education senior fellow at the progressive think tank Century Foundation.

Yet despite those opportunities, the city has long let the area around its universities have the curb appeal of a busted lip.

The problems of that malaise became clearer recently when students were asked to chime in on a city proposal to finally redevelop Railroad Corner, a currently dilapidated junction within walking distances of both HBCU campuses.

Students describe a city with little options off campus. “We don’t even have a movie theater or anything,” one senior told The Times and Democrat — another student listed “Cook-Out” as their main off-campus hangout. That was true for Smith as well, when she was a student at South Carolina State from 2004 to 2008.

Students looking for entertainment must drive about an hour either north to Columbia or east to Charleston. Which might leave cash-strapped students having to book pricey hotels … or potentially risk a DUI after a night out.

With the Railroad Corner redevelopment, Orangeburg hopes to enhance walkability and build mixed-use developments that attract students from the universities, serving as “a gateway to downtown.”

It’s a promising sign for town-gown relations that the city’s first public input session was held in the Claflin University Dining Hall. “The city is starting to see the contributions the institutions are making,” Smith said.

But the fact that conditions near the city’s two HBCUs have been allowed to linger for so long warrants further questions about relationships between majority-Black institutions and the rural towns many of them occupy.

That’s especially true here, at the site of the 1968 Orangeburg massacre, where South Carolina Highway Patrol officers shot and killed three people while firing into a crowd of protestors on the South Carolina State campus — an incident that began with a small group of Black students trying to bowl at a local alley.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • The Day the Music Died. Rows of Steinway pianos waiting to be hauled off from Lock Haven University inspired a eulogy from graduates of the music program which, just over a decade ago, seemed poised to thrive at the rural Pennsylvania school — inspiring a reflection on what choices states owe to their rural students compared to their urban peers.
  • Nursing the Rural Healthcare Shortage. Michigan lawmakers are considering legislation to allow state community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees in nursing, as the Wolverine State looks to staff rural hospitals and increase its percentage of BSN numbers from 46.5% in 2020 to at least 80% in coming years.
  • Are Federal GEAR UP cuts mistaken? Maine’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the Department of Education, accusing it of neglecting its statutory responsibilities in cutting the program in Maine and six other states that provided college counseling and college exploration for thousands of rural students.
The Railroad Corner could offer new options for students at two nearby HBCUs in Orangeburg, S.C. (Nick Fouriezos)

03: In the Sticks

Orangeburg is majority Black — both in its population and political leadership — although rural communities trend older, whiter and poorer than many other college locales.

In some cases, university-inspired economic development that other cities would embrace is seen with a wary eye, particularly in retiree-heavy regions where “change” is sometimes a cuss word.

That’s something Katelyn Moore, the marketing coordinator of East Georgia State University, told me last month.

In its city, Swainsboro, there are few hangouts catering to EGSU students, from coffee houses to restaurants.

Internet investment in the area is poor, so much so that people living even 100 yards outside of city limits are subject to near dial-up speeds.

There has been no meaningful effort to build off-campus housing of any sorts, much less affordable student housing.

The problem? Students of color in these under-serviced regions must also rely on them even more than their urban peers.

Only 65% of Americans in rural areas have access to high-speed internet, compared to 97% in urban ones.

More than 1 million households in rural America, where driving distances to services are often significantly longer, don’t have access to a vehicle.

Those seeking to use public transportation instead are often out of luck: Only 57% of community colleges have transit stops within walking distance of campus.

Sure, rural communities often have fewer resources to support students with. But plenty of rural communities across America are revitalizing themselves despite facing similar challenges — places like Gillette, Wyoming and Trinidad, Colorado, which have made public arts projects into economic drivers.

The Railroad Corner project creates that same type of opportunity for Orangeburg — to see if it can create a better environment for the very students that are the reason that presidential motorcade even came to town.

“Seeing Orangeburg want to, slowly, but surely, invest in making this into a college town is exciting,” Smith said.

04: Laying Seeds

  • Amazon funds $3M computer science pilot. And, unlike other corporate forays into community colleges, it comes with plans from the ecommerce giant to hire many graduates from the Washington state program — “signaling that a Fortune 100 company believes it can find top talent at community and technical colleges.”
  • The Texoma Promise provides free tuition to locals. Led by Grayson College and more than two dozen community partners, the program aims to address enrollment drops by covering tuition and fees for applicants in the region named as a portmanteau of Texas and Oklahoma.
  • Looking for rural? Allen Schaidle, a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa College of Education, has compiled this helpful database of rural student initiatives, research centers and teacher associations.

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