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Musk’s Big Bet

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch site at Boca Chica beach in South Texas. Photo: Nick Fouriezos
Mile Markers
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A bimonthly newsletter about the role of colleges in rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

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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 perils of career steering in South Texas
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: The real hillbilly elegy.
  • 03: In the Sticks: Louisiana’s OER push, with Kim Hunter Reed.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: New Mexico’s path for adult learners.

01: Postcards

I recently spent a week in the Rio Grande Valley, exploring both the promise and the peril of Elon Musk’s rocket ship to Mars for local residents in the remote region.

If you haven’t, I encourage you to read the full story, which was co-published with USA Today.

Here are quick takeaways I had from working on this story, with particular importance to rural students and colleges.

1. Career steering is tricky business. As I mention in the piece, Valley students historically have felt like they only had four career options — and three of them came with a gun.

By pushing STEM initiatives and Early College programs that allow students to graduate with associate’s degrees or technical certifications, rural educators can help encourage education pathways that lead to a broader range of careers.

However, educators should be careful. Nationwide, a number of rural colleges trend toward emphasizing majors with clear job demand, such as nursing or engineering.

Steering students to such careers may help solve state workforce shortages and improve economic outcomes for some. But it also suggests that rural students don’t deserve the full slate of choices others have.

It leads to students like Bianca Castro, a former poster child for the Valley’s STEM push, who became disillusioned and frustrated with a process that forces 8th graders to make academic track decisions that can impact their careers for years.

2. Showing the way matters. Don’t under-estimate the effect one example of success can have. One student I met planned to join the military because that’s how both her older brother and sister found a career outside the Valley. Those same family members said they couldn’t come back because there were no long-term job opportunities for them back home.

The inverse holds true too, particularly in rural areas rife with tight-knit families: One student studying computer science and finding a job with Google can lead to a chain reaction of cousins, siblings, and other relatives following them.

The most powerful examples are familial. Still, hero figures can serve a role, too: A local principal, Mary Solis, found inspiration in Elon Musk, because of his willingness to take on ambitious projects despite struggling in school as a child.

The world’s richest man is worlds apart from the average Valley resident, despite his work launching rockets from the poor people’s beach there.

Yet there are ways to raise a region’s ambitions to match that of a motivational figure … even if it’s worth asking whether the Valley should really take cues from a man challenging Vladimir Putin to duels over Twitter.

3. Why Musk, and the Valley, matter. As far as rich men go, Musk at least is curiosity-inducing — his habits of living beneath his means and making lessons out of failure are intriguing.

But the arrival of Musk and SpaceX in the Valley doesn’t just have ramifications for the environmental and cultural integrity of South Texas. It also carries lessons for a number of other rural regions, which increasingly serve as the testing grounds for the innovation dreams of billionaires.

For example, the technologies driving alternative energy, from windmills to solar panels, often take root first in rural communities — and, in some cases, cannibalize them. That process is already taking place in the Rio Grande Valley, which is seeing rapid cultural and economic evolution.

Some will certainly benefit, but there are already plenty of proof points to show that many of them are not the same people who have toiled so long in those communities.

Rural leaders will continue to be approached by the Musks of the world, who will offer them similar rocket ships to prosperity. And they will have to decide: what will change, and is the cost worth it?

The Sabal Palm Sanctuary at the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • The Real Hillbilly Elegy? The statistics in this Columbus Dispatch piece provide an interesting window into education in one of the country’s most invoked (and, often, most misunderstood) regions: rural Appalachia. About one-third of Ohio’s higher education institutions are in Appalachian counties. In 2018, about 48% of rural high schoolers enrolled in college within two years of graduating high school. That number was better than urban districts, where 40% of students enrolled, but was much lower than the 72% of suburban students who enrolled in college.
  • A ‘School Funding Crisis.’ That’s what Tony Messenger, a columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, calls the situation in Missouri. His piece pairs nicely with the previous work of Springfield News-Leader reporter Claudette Riley, who recently showed that 128 Missouri school districts, roughly 25% of all public schools in the state, have moved to 4-day weeks as a way to save money. He also notes that it’s difficult to improve conditions when the state struggles to attract teachers to rural districts — Missouri ranks 50th in starting teacher pay,

“One of the truths about Missouri that doesn’t get told enough is that there is a lot of potential common ground between urban areas and rural areas that often find themselves divided in legislative debates. Much of that common ground relates to poverty, which tends to predominantly affect white people where Piper (a state Democrat) lives and Black people in cities.

  • Rural Counselors Could Use Some Counseling. Omaha’s KETV reports stories of Nebraska high school counselors overwhelmed while trying to treat hundreds of high schoolers — sometimes responsible for dozens more than the 250 students per counselor recommended by the American School Counselor Association. Rural students especially need guidance: they are less likely to attend college, and many don’t have parents who did so and can show them the way. And as rural colleges consider what services they can cut amid flagging budgets, the gaps on the K-12 level likely mean even those who do make it to post-secondary institutions are going to need more wraparound services, not less.

03: In the Sticks

Louisiana wants to have 60% of working age adults earn some type of degree or valuable credential by 2029.

Half of adults in the state have only a high school education or less, so there’s a lot of work to do. Since implementing its Master Plan for Education in 2019, it has grown that group with a degree or credential from 44.2% in 2018 to 48.1% in 2021.

A key part of its strategy is implementing Open Educational Resources (OER), instructional materials (whether text or media) that are openly licensed and freely accessible for teaching purposes.

Supporters say OER expands access by lessening the cost barriers for students pursuing a degree … and which critics say could lead to unvetted, questionably qualified education materials infiltrating the classroom.

Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, spoke recently about the state’s efforts at the Southern Regional Education Board’s inaugural OER and dual credit conference in February.

In the speech, she spoke about Louisiana’s new dual enrollment portal, which helps school counselors, students, and parents easily see what college courses are available for high school students.

On OER specifically, she touted two efforts:

  • This fall, Louisiana will add OER to 25 dual enrollment, general ed courses with high failure rates — saving prospective students on costly textbooks.
  • In addition, Louisiana already requires that all public university professors list on their syllabi whether their required texts are OER materials — theoretically allowing students to avoid classes they can’t afford to take.

“Today, if you tell me who your parents are, their background, it tells me almost everything I need to know about your likelihood of success,” Hunter Reed told me: “We have to change that. We have to decouple your geography from your reality.”

Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed

Textbook costs have increased three times the inflation rate since the 1970s, with students having to spend thousands per semester in some cases.

That’s partly why 65% of college students skipped buying books during the pandemic, despite knowing it would hurt their grades, according to a February 2021 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Education Fund.

At Washtenaw Community College in Michigan, students saved $9M on textbooks using OER the last few years. At Motlow State Community College in Tennessee, OER helped decrease costs for high school students enrolled in dual credit courses — with the number of students graduating with associate’s degrees increasing from seven in 2019 to 52 just a year later.

OER presents an interesting model for rural students and colleges that are disproportionately strapped for cash, compared with other demographics. But its most challenging roadblock might be making a convincing enough economic case to get larger school administrators and textbook providers on board.

After all, widespread adoption will require more than appealing to the magnanimity of those who benefit from the current system (many of whom argue that OER texts present real challenges for quality control and the cost of keeping texts updated).

“That’s why this is an issue that has to be more grassroots in nature,” says Stephen Pruitt, president of SREB. “You can’t legislate people to care.”

The concept of OER is still relatively nascent: the term itself was first coined at UNESCO’s 2002 Forum on Open Courseware, and the University of Wyoming won’t launch the first OER-focused journal until this fall.

Which is just to say that events like the SREB conference are still at the building awareness stage. OER’s fans are still a long way from really bringing free resources to the masses.

04: Planting Seeds

  • Want to Learn More About OER? In October, SREB published this 50-state policy report, offering analysis and recommendations related to OER adoption and usage.
  • Kent State Wins Distance Learning Grants. The $585,046 from USDA grants are helping middle and high school students take online college courses at Kent State’s rural Ohio campuses in Geauga and Ashtabula counties, east of Cleveland.
  • New Mexico Offers a Path for Adult Learners. The Adult Education and Literacy Program combines 26 individual programs to help adults who didn’t graduate high school advance their language skills and earn their diploma, a process that leads some to go on to earn a college degree too.

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