Ryanna Pruett, left, and her older sister, Shaelea, on their family farm in Manzanola, Colo. The sisters graduated from Fowler High School, with Ryanna attending Otero College in La Junta and Shaelea planning to attend Colorado State University Pueblo in the fall. (Photo/Mark Reis for Chalkbeat)

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: College success in a tiny Eastern Plains town.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: Shark Tank in the holler?
  • 03: In the Sticks: Q&A with Chalkbeat Colorado’s Jason Gonzales.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: From coal fields to Virginia Tech.

01: Postcards

So often, in this space and elsewhere, we focus on what doesn’t work for rural students, and how those obstacles limit their higher ed opportunities.

However, there are also lessons to be gleaned from what does work — in places like Fowler, a tiny Colorado town with surprisingly high college attendance rates from its lone 110-person high school.

Jason Gonzales, an Open Campus local reporter with Chalkbeat Colorado, recently visited Fowler to find out what has helped them create an appreciation for college in the 1,150-person community.

In 2018, 21 of its 25 graduates went to college. In 2019, 26 of 32 did. And while the pandemic did hamper many rural students’ postsecondary plans, the school still saw a healthy 14 of 23 graduates enroll in college in 2020.

Unlike, say, a Breckenridge or Vail, this isn’t the case of a rural Colorado resort town with significantly wealthier residents: About half the college-going Fowler students qualified for a Pell Ggrant or other federal funds indicating financial need.

Industry isn’t a sole driver for their degrees, either. Agriculture dominates the economy, with farms and ranches that dot either side of the Arkansas River, while the nearby correctional facility and the local bank and market offer other jobs.

Though some of those jobs increasingly require a degree, many do not, which suggests industry needs aren’t the sole driver for their college attendance.

Still, a majority of Fowler graduates are attending college. That stands out, considering fewer than half of rural Colorado’s high school graduates go to college (a figure about 5 percentage points below the state average).

I spoke with Jason about his findings, and share his thoughts later in this newsletter — but first, let’s take a look at what’s happening across the broader rural higher education landscape.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • The South sees two-year enrollment plunge. The Southern Regional Education Board’s Fact Book on Higher Ed, which comes out Wednesday alongside 16 state data reports, shows a troubling collapse in two-year colleges.

In some states, including Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia, enrollment fell nearly 20% from 2014 to 2019 — meaning that the nationwide pandemic-related drops of 15% in 2020 and 7.8% in 2021 were cutting from an already decimated subset.

  • Is Shark Tank coming to a holler near you? Writing in the Daily Yonder, Kristi Eaton covers the trend of rural regions hosting Shark Tank-style business-pitch competitions to gin up new economic development and attract younger entrepreneurs to areas that need a spark.

College campuses are a key part of such programs, often supplying the talent and sometimes even hosting the events. NetWork Kansas, a nonprofit that works to stoke entrepreneurship, saw over 1,000 students participate in its more than 50 competitions across the state.

  • A frustrating setback. For The Chronicle, Eric Hoover writes about Denni Fealy, a rural student who sought to leave behind her family’s converted doublewide in Palouse, Washington, to become more self-reliant and expose herself to new experiences. But when two ROTC scholarships fell through, she had to decide whether it was worth attending closer to home.
Fowler High School principal Russell Bates talks in his office with senior Ashton Cash about graduation plans. Many educators at Fowler are from the community, and instill within students the idea that high school is only a start for them. (Mark Reis for Chalkbeat)

03: In the Sticks

Jason has been working on a series of stories looking at uneven outcomes across Colorado, from Hispanic males to, now, rural students. 

He was intentional in picking Fowler, focusing on the Eastern Plains community rather than other college success stories in the state’s ritzier rural spaces. And for Gonzales, it was important to spotlight what a rural Colorado community can have to offer even if it doesn’t have the advantage of tourism.

“I think rural Colorado is often talked about from sort of a deficit: the things that they don’t have,” Gonzales said, but “if you look at the numbers, you see that there are some who are able to do really great work with their students to get them wherever they want to be.” 

The Eastern Plains does face challenges that many rural regions share, including a lack of proximity to essential services or a nearby 4-year university.

But one of its strengths is a community ethos of college-going, Gonzales says. In 1916, Mathias Hermes created a scholarship to help Fowler students cover college living expenses — and the $100/month scholarship is still awarded to two recipients a century later.

That cultural appreciation is difficult to pinpoint, though. “It just sort of is built into the community,’ Gonzales says. “Most researchers would say that’s extremely hard to replicate.”

The answer to Fowler’s success becomes a bit clearer when you mine down to the school itself, which has focused on creating an expectation of college attendance rather than merely focusing on its K-12 mission.

That emphasis begins with the principal but is really honed in by Donna and Mike Aragon, a husband-and-wife pair who worked in higher education themselves before returning to Fowler to raise their family.

Over the last two decades, Donna, the guidance director, and Mike, the IT director, have worked together to coordinate students’ plans and teach a senior seminar to prepare students for what college is like.

Their instruction includes more than just filling out the FAFSA, with lessons on budgeting for the hidden costs that might come up on campus. The school requires students to submit weekly job or school applications, then announces at graduation the thousands of scholarship dollars their students were awarded.

“In rural Colorado, you really don’t have many counselors. In some districts, you might have none,” Gonzales says, so having two in a district with just over 100 total high schoolers “is a huge asset.”

It’s not uncommon in rural areas for counselors to see individual case loads of 500 or more students. Some in Colorado have never even attended college themselves, Gonzales says, possibly limiting the advice they can give students. 

His story really underscores the difference a good advisor can make, and I plan on writing more about the ways rural colleges and high schools are using counselors, coaches, and other guidance professionals. 

If you have any thoughts, please don’t hesitate to send me an email.

04: Planting Seeds

  • Dual enrollment teaching expands in Fresno. Over 100 high school teachers are becoming eligible to teach dual enrollment courses in California, through a $1.5 million two-year program meant to lessen the gap between rural and urban schools throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
  • From coal fields to Blacksburg. The Virginia Tech Southwest Center brought junior and senior girls from the mining region of Buchanan County on a free two-day tour of campus to spotlight STEM career opportunities. Over 500 county students have participated in recent years, with 94% of them going on to enroll in college or a technical school after high school. 
  • Montana expands mental health. With a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education awarded in 2019, Montana institutions are helping an estimated 50 graduate students with their higher education costs as they also provide counseling at high-needs rural schools over a five-year period.

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