The view from Sequoia National Park in California. (Photo/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: In the Sticks: Rural experts unite to improve higher ed.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: The good, and bad, of digital efforts.
  • 03: Postcards: Floods, accents, and rural higher ed experiences.

01: In the Sticks

Rurality has long been part of the national discourse, but postsecondary education in rural spaces is a surprisingly nascent field of study and organizing. 

By definition, rural practitioners are far from the limelight. A rural focus is also rare in the study of higher education itself, with new research primarily led by a handful of younger scholars who are often themselves from those places.

However, efforts in higher education to expand rural understanding, research, and practice seem to finally be gaining steam, after years of talk that grew in the 2016 presidential election and accelerated during the pandemic. 

The Washington University in St. Louis is soon launching the Heartland Initiative to better serve rural students. A variety of institutions have added rural-focused efforts in recent years, such as the University of Chicago’s Emerging Rural Leaders Program and the University of Georgia’s ALL Georgia Program

In late April, dozens of rural educators, researchers, and others gathered at the Rural Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona — and left with the goal of co-designing a Rural Education Community of Practice, one focused on improving postsecondary enrollment and success of rural students. 

That work is led by higher ed consultant Matt Newlin, Education Design Lab, Partners for Rural Impact, and Ascendium Education Group (which supports Open Campus: read our editorial independence policy here).

Yesterday was one of the first broader sessions aimed at building that new community of practice, with more than 100 rural higher ed experts and stakeholders collaborating online. 

I offer more thoughts from that Zoom session below, but for now, I’ll just say that such work is long overdue. 

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Student loans cost US billions. The US Department of Education originally estimated that student loans made in the last quarter century would generate $114 billion in revenue. Those loans are now estimated to cost Uncle Sam nearly $200 billion, according to a study released by the US Government Accountability Office this morning.

Why It Matters: The report said the $314 billion swing was due to programmatic changes — such as the debt repayment pauses during COVID — as well as revised estimates of what students will be able to pay back. Too much of a shortfall could lead lawmakers to pull back future loaning, which many lower-income and rural students rely on to afford rising college costs.

  • It liiives…or does it? After years of causing stress, Online Idaho is finally about to get stress-tested. Sixteen students will pilot the digital statewide course portal meant to expand access beyond Idaho’s college campuses, a “baby step of a milestone” for a program that predates the pandemic and has registered just one student so far despite receiving $6 million in federal coronavirus aid.
  • Another way to get connected. The University of Northern Iowa is now offering 4-year degrees online while partnering with the state’s community colleges to particularly help adult and location-bound learners. 

The program pairs with a Future Ready scholarship to bridge the tuition gap for associate degree earners willing to go online to get one of several high-demand degrees, including criminal justice, elementary education, and liberal studies.

  • The bottom line. Newlin has been making the rounds — the founder of the Rural College Student Experience podcast recently spoke to the Daily Yonder. He notes the challenges of convincing colleges to consider rurality as its own identity … especially when they already are hesitant to recruit students who, due to lower populations and college-going rates, may in their minds represent a lesser return on investment.

“Rural communities have, on average, lower postsecondary educational attainment rates which means colleges are less likely to recruit from those areas because of the “poor” ROI on sending admission materials or recruiters to those communities.”

Berea College in Eastern Kentucky (Photo/Nick Fouriezos)

03: Postcards

“We’re extremely distracted today,” admitted Jenny Hobson, a family training coordinator who was attending the Zoom session on Thursday.

Even as she and others met to talk about addressing rural needs, a deadly flash flood was ripping through her eastern Kentucky community. 

“A lot of our work today has been figuring out where our people are … and what they’ve still got,” Hobson said. 

The needs of her students and their families had rapidly shifted, with mere weeks before many colleges start classes. Much of the day’s conversation centered around meeting the broad, and evolving, needs of rural students.

Sue Christian, a coordinator at Partners for Rural Impact in Berea, Kentucky, says new teachers are often overwhelmed when asked to interact with the families of their students.

“They don’t come out of colleges or universities prepared for this,” Christian said, proposing that education degrees needed to incorporate it in their curriculum.

Members of the session talked about other challenges rural students faced in their postsecondary pathways. 

Parents whose worst fear is that their children will go to university and never come back, leading them to write off higher education altogether.

Families who don’t have the liquid assets to quickly address the financial surprises that can arise, from unexpected fees to costly books. 

Students who arrive at college, even ones in the same state, and immediately are harassed for their accents.

“The student either becomes very defensive, or very ashamed, of that. I was told that myself,” Christian said. “There’s no place in higher education for that.”

The Rural Education Community of Practice is in its early stages, with more questions than answers for both what it will look like and how it will help rural communities in their postsecondary goals.

The early attendees had hope that it could make a difference — and were also vocal about what they hoped it would not become.

“Hopefully not an echo chamber,” said Christina Igl, an honors adviser at Bowling Green State University, one “that’s just slowly circling the drain until no more emails are scheduled, and no more meetings are on the calendar,” 

In my reporting, and in the experiences of others, it’s become clear that one of the major obstacles for a deeper understanding of rural education is the concept that “rurality” itself is not a meaningful identity.

That perception is slowly changing in higher ed, and groups like this are hopefully just the beginning.

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