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How does this tiny Colorado town send most students to college?

Shaelea Pruett (Mark Reis/Chalkbeat)
The Weekly Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.


Bucking the trend

Earlier this year, Jason Gonzales, our local reporter with Chalkbeat Colorado, set out to examine another element of the “Colorado Paradox” — the way the state does a great job of attracting people with college degrees, and an underwhelming job of getting people who grew up in Colorado through college.

He had already written about this through the perspective of one segment of students — Hispanic men. This time he had plans to explore why less than half of rural Colorado’s high school graduates go to college, a rate about five points below the state average.

(Behind the journalism sausage-making a bit: This is right up my ally. We started with a spreadsheet of college-going data by school district, ran a few calculations, and built a tool for Jason to explore the numbers to find the right places to tell this story. My prerogative is that I get to just throw out a bunch of random ideas and he then has to figure out how to make that into a story.)

Why the low rural college-going rates? As Jason explains in his story this week, the reasons are complex:

College can feel far away, geographically and culturally. Colleges sometimes haven’t done enough to make degrees feel relevant to the interests and experiences of rural Coloradans. The cost can deter students unsure if college will improve their earnings. College recruiters don’t often stop at rural high schools.

So we set out to see what we could learn from places that were bucking that trend. Among the spots that jumped out early on: Fowler, Colorado. It’s a town of 1,200 people on the state’s southeastern plains, about 40 miles east of Pueblo. The core of economy is agriculture and just 110 students go to the local high school. Fowler, though, keeps sending those students to college.

In 2018, 21 of the 25 high-school graduates went to college. In 2019, 26 of 32 went. Even in 2020, when many people put off their college plans, the high school still sent 14 of its 23 to college.

And Fowler isn’t one of the state’s touristy remote areas, home to wealthy people with second homes. About half of the Fowler students who went to college qualify for a Pell Grant.

Jason drove out there to find what might be different. He discovered a persistent college-going culture, a school that confidently connects students with a life outside Fowler, and what I’m always hoping for on this type of story: a person that makes a difference. In this case, as he writes, it’s two people:

At the center of many of those conversations are Donna and Mike Aragon, who have been a two-person college machine in Fowler for about 20 years. The husband-and-wife pair worked in higher education before returning home to Fowler to raise their family.

Guidance director Donna Aragon coordinates students’ plans after high school. IT director Mike Aragon teaches senior seminar and prepares students on the ins and outs of college.

Together they educate students on the costs of college, ensure they understand and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and teach them about what it takes to not only go to college, but deal with living expenses.

Their former students include ranch managers, diesel mechanics, a Colorado State University Fort Collins admissions counselor, a video game designer, teachers, and accountants.

Depending on people like the Aragons isn’t a structural solution, though. Perhaps the most novel idea Jason reported on is a new Rural College Consortium that will let the state’s community colleges access each others’ programs. One challenge, he learned, for rural institutions is finding a sustainable balance on job-training programs. There just aren’t that many jobs in some local industries. Train too many new workers in a certain program and things are out of whack.

College degrees aren’t just about getting rural Coloradans to leave home, either. Joe Garcia, the chancellor of the state’s community college system, emphasized that agricultural workers alone won’t sustain these communities.

“You need people who understand tech, who understand programming, who understand internet security, who can start up businesses. They need to be able to rely on their ability to access the internet and not just their ability to access a tractor.”

—Scott Smallwood

+ Subscribe to Mile Markers, our newsletter about rural higher education.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Rodney Bennett, president of University of Southern Mississippi, with protesters calling for a living wage earlier this month. (Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today)

In Mississippi, minimum wage workers at the University of Southern Mississippi get a pay raise after protests. They’ll now earn $11.25 an hour.

In The Job, a recently formed group of six colleges and universities is taking the mantra of “listen to students” to the next level—by tapping learners to solve higher education’s biggest problems.

In Mile Markers, Nick Fouriezos reports on his travels through five of California’s least educated counties.

In College Inside, a new report on Second Chance Pell shows white students have been overrepresented and Hispanic students underrepresented, compared to the overall prison population.

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