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What I saw in 5 of California’s least-educated counties

Madera County, California. 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: A Dearth of Degrees in This California Corridor.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: The White House wants ‘Internet for All’
  • 03: In the Sticks: How rural can Biden’s $30/month internet get?
  • 04: Laying Seeds: Texas Tech looks to staunch rural teacher deficit.
Tulare County sits at the foothills of Sequioa National Park in California.

01: Postcards

California has some of the best community colleges and universities in the country, as well as some of the nation’s most generous financial aid programs for low-income families.

So why is it just average when it comes to college attainment? 

In California, about 35 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree, just above the national average of 33 percent.

I spent the last week traveling through five of the state’s six lowest counties for college attainment — Lassen, Tulare, Kings, Merced, and Madera — using an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California as my guide. 

Less than 15% of residents over 25 in each of those counties has a bachelor’s degree, according to the American Community Survey five-year county and census tract estimates from 2019.

If you’re familiar with the Golden State, you may recognize another commonality: All of those counties are rural. Lassen is a former timber town in northeast California. The other four counties I visited are part of the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, an area baked in high heats, troublesome droughts, and longstanding poverty.

I will be publishing more interviews from my trip as part of our California Postcards project. But for now, here are some brief descriptions of the people I met, and some of the lessons they taught me about why people do or don’t finish college.

Generational patterns. 

The importance of a degree, or the lack thereof, was often passed down by parents. Among the many migrant worker families of Merced and Madera counties — many of whom had never attended middle or even elementary school — the assumption was that seasonal work was always available without a degree, so why bother getting one?

“My dad didn’t go to school. My mom, she went to fourth grade, but she left because it was difficult,” says Rafael Librado-Lopez, a high school senior from Madera currently applying for colleges. His indigenous Oaxacan-Mexican parents have faced extra challenges in the United States, since they speak little English and Spanish is only a second language to them. 

“I hope I can be a role model for my brother, my cousin,” Librado-Lopez says.

Gemini Lopez and Michael Dinkins are both business majors at Merced’s community college, although the two former high school teammates admit they are mostly there to play football in hopes of transferring to a Division I school … and eventually, the pros. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

Questionable value. 

In Kings and Tulare, I met many “stop-out” students, who had tried community college or even university, but felt like it ultimately hadn’t served them well. One student, Bri, felt “swallowed” by a never-ending cycle of classes that she didn’t feel would ultimately help her. 

She went to two trade schools — for dental and medical assisting — but doesn’t use the training for either, instead getting a mental health position that came from a previous job she held. “School seems to not really do much but put you into astronomical debt. Or maybe I’m really shitty at choosing what I want to do,” she told me. 

Finding value, with or without a diploma. 

Still, others were able to overcome those attitudes with time. Margaret Salas, 69, grew up the daughter of migrant farmers, who told her an education was a waste of time. She worked as a teacher’s aide, married a military man at 24, had kids — and returned to college years later, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business alongside her daughter in 2011. 

Luz Gonzalez, 28, grew up in a religious environment that actively opposed education. Her year at the community college in Merced was transformative, exposing her to other worldviews. She dropped out when family violence forced her to move out and take two jobs to pay rent. A decade later, she is now thriving professionally in a sales job, and still dreams of returning — not for the degree, but for the joy of learning more. 

These are just some of the people I met, and you will hear more from them in the coming weeks. But for now, please enjoy some …

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Rural America has half the tech jobs one would expect. That’s the conclusion of a year-long national survey of rural adults by the Center on Rural Innovation, which found that about 80,000 of the “missing” jobs are in core non-tech industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, government, and banking.

Why it matters. Amid the pandemic and rise of remote work over the last two years, rural Americans have been told tech opportunities await them. Nearly 60% of rural Americans are interested in tech jobs and careers, according to that same survey (which was funded by Ascendium, also the sponsor of this newsletter and my position at Open Campus).

  • From Arizona farmworker family to ASU graduate. Firstgen student Jose Pelagio-Ayala tells his story, from growing up in rural Tonopah, Arizona to graduating this spring with a communications degree from Arizona State University. He plans to pursue real estate and start economics clubs across Arizona to teach others valuable lessons. “I think that the two best ways for kids to get out of poverty, like I had to, are higher education and financial literacy,” he says.
  • The White House Wants “Internet for All.” In Durham, North Carolina on Friday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Gov. Ray Cooper announced that the Biden administration was releasing $45 billion in funds for its “Internet for All” initiative. States will be able to bid for the funds, a first for broadband funding, experts say, which traditionally has been awarded directly by the feds to private companies.

Why it matters. This comes on the heels of other big Biden initiatives that affect rural America, including the launching of the White House’s Rural Playbook and a commitment from 20 internet providers covering 80% of the U.S. population to offer internet to low-income households for less than $30 per month.

03: In the Sticks

Let’s talk about those recent Biden broadband promises. Combined with discounts offered by the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) passed in last year’s infrastructure bill, eligible households would ostensibly pay nothing for 100 mbps speeds — capable of having a family of four stream video and, generally, work or study from home. 

From California to Georgia, rural educators have told me that students were held back by home internet that simply wasn’t good enough to stream online classes for an entire family. Even when institutions have provided their students with mobile hotspots, they’ve been disappointed by service that is often ineffective in rural areas.

“It’s a weak signal that you can maybe call 911 with, but not anything that you can put computers on for two or three students in a household,” says Allen Fort, the superintendent of Taliaferro County, one of Georgia’s poorest and most remote counties. 

So will the White House’s recent deal help rural communities? 

Some, experts say. But, overall, it’s poor, remote communities that are most likely to be left out of the administration’s internet largesse.

That’s because the 20% of the U.S. population not covered by these major providers has significant cross-over with the roughly 20% of Americans that live in rural areas. 

“It’s more expensive to serve rural, less dense areas,” says Jennifer Harris, the state program director for Texas for the national internet-focused nonprofit Connected Nation. “If that provider had a $30 plan, and practically everyone qualifies for it, they can’t run a business on just $30 a month per customer.”

The ACP will likely find success in markets — urban, rural or suburban — with a more financially diverse mix of customers to draw from. “They have some customers paying the full price, and who may even want to pay more for gig speed, to offset that lower price,” Harris says.

Some rural communities are getting increased access to high speed internet through other programs, like the USDA ReConnect grant. The BEAD program, also approved in last year’s infrastructure bill, will hand states even more for expanding broadband, although those federal funds likely won’t be released until 2023. 

Still, many rural communities hoping to be part of Biden’s recent efforts to expand affordable internet are likely to be disappointed. More work has to be done before the digital divide can be bridged for good.

04: Planting Seeds

  • Addressing a Texas teacher shortage. The West Texas Rural Education Partnership at Texas Tech received $1.5 million to build on a previous $500,000 gift made in April 2021 to address the teacher shortage in the region, after successfully recruiting and preparing 48 aspiring educators who have committed to serving in 18 different rural districts.
  • Rural health expert heads to Wyoming. Jacob Warren, who for most of the last decade has headed Mercer’s Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities in Macon, Georgia, was recently named Dean of the University of Wyoming’s College of Health Sciences. 
  • Rural grants foster cross-pond collaboration. Augusta University in Georgia awarded four $10,000 grants to research projects stemming from the Converge International Rural Health Symposium last October. Each project had to include a partner from each side of the Atlantic, fostering collaborative work on addressing the similar health needs in both rural Georgia and rural Scotland.

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