Montgomery Mayor Greg Ingram walks through the empty stands of the WVU Tech football field, which overlooks a city that has struggled since the university left. 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.

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A biweekly newsletter about higher education and rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: Rural college closures hit home.
02: Roadside Attractions: ‘We couldn’t even answer the question.’

01: Postcards

A rural town, a fleeing flagship, and faltering faith in higher ed. I explored the intersection of these ideas last week in an Open Campus story co-published with USA Today. The piece explores the predicament of Montgomery, a West Virginia town that lost its college more than five years ago and is still reeling from the aftershocks:

All this time later, West Virginia’s decision to move WVU Tech is important not just for what it took away but also for the distrust it fueled with its departure. The residents of Montgomery feel abandoned by the state’s powerful flagship university, which also has become the state’s largest healthcare provider and employer.

This is a common concern for rural areas around the country, as pandemic relief funds have dried up and enrollments remain low at many rural institutions.

Similar fears are sprouting up in Mount Pleasant, a city of less than 9,000 people in Southeastern Iowa. There, Iowa Wesleyan College shut its doors in May, which means roughly 1,000 faculty, staff, and students will likely leave soon, too.

“You lose 11-12% of your population just suddenly like that, it has an enormous impact,” says Randy Neff, a Mount Pleasant resident who previously served as the chief financial officer for the college in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

“The college has had financial issues for many, many decades,” Neff says, but in the past, the town was able to rally to save it.

In October of 2018, when Iowa Wesleyan said it was going to close in the spring, residents were able to raise enough funds to keep it open. This time, though, the announcement was made just two months before the college closed.

“It gave nobody time to prepare,” Neff told me. “Faculty contracts had been sent and signed, kids were signing up for classes. It was just a big shock to everyone.”

Neff worries about the impact the college’s closure will have on Mount Pleasant, particularly as students made up many of the volunteers for community events, since Iowa Wesleyan required that they complete a certain number of local volunteer hours to graduate.

“Those students will now all be gone,” Neff says, as will the many cultural events the college brought, including speakers, plays, and symphony orchestras. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which loaned Iowa Wesleyan $26 million in 2016, is now working with local officials to decide what happens to the empty campus in the heart of the city’s downtown.

“Personally, it’s just kind of a tragedy that they’re gone. A lot of the identity in Mount Pleasant is tied to Iowa Wesleyan being here,” Neff says. “It’s a 60-acre campus and you have all these large education buildings, most of them which aren’t suited for commercial use. What happens to them?”

At least three colleges have announced they were closing since Iowa Wesleyan revealed in March that it was shutting down, after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds denied a request for emergency funds to keep the state’s second-oldest college open.

It’s not just rural colleges: Small private religious institutions in particular are struggling, with Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee having closed this month and St. Augustine College in Chicago announcing plans to merge with Lewis University by the end of the year.

In upstate New York, Medaille University, a college that served around 1,600 students, announced it would close in August, after its attempts at being acquired by close-by Trocaire College failed to gain traction.

In most cases, universities need a minimum of between 1,500 and 2,000 students to stay financially viable — and, really, anything less than 3,000 students already presents significant challenges, Gordon State College president Kirk Nooks told me when I visited Barnesville, an Atlanta exurb, in February.

After a pandemic dip in enrollment, the rural college had managed to increase its enrollment to more than 3,000 by leveraging its community partnerships and effectively balancing a combination of online and in-person students.

It has added programs that put Gordon State students into the local workforce, giving them valuable on the job training and direct pathways to careers that make it possible for hometown kids to stay in the region.

“Now we’ve got you, the student, engaged, not only academically, but financially,” Nooks said, describing a partnership with a nearby hospital that helps area highschoolers earn an associates degree and get automatically accepted into Gordon State’s nursing program too.

Still, rural colleges can sometimes be limited in their options (particularly when decisions about them are being made by educators in other parts of the state).

After celebrating its 112th commencement a month ago, the University of Maine in Machias is facing existential risks from low enrollment and significant faculty turnover.

In 2015, the University of Maine at Machias decided to tear down Kimball Hall, a 102-year-old residential hall, a decision that contributed to what local newspaper publisher Bob Berta calls “the dismantling of UMM.” Photo: Courtesy Bob Berta

Enrollment numbers have dipped, from around 650 students two decades ago to less than 300 students (and only about 85 actually on campus) in fall of 2022, says Bob Berta, owner and publisher of County Wide Newspaper in Machias.

The Maine Monitor reports that five full-time faculty members have retired since last year, and at least three more are expected to retire in 2023. The wave of resignations and retirements has led to significant fretting from the remaining faculty.

“I’ve never been on this campus when the numbers are so low. It’s kind of like a shell of itself,” Brian Beal, a marine ecology professor who has been at UMM since 1985, told the Maine Monitor.

He plans to switch to half time in September, joining roughly 25 part-timers to complement what is expected to be a faculty of 16 full-time educators available for fall 2023.

Berta believes things at the college could still be turned around, but only if it moved away from being the state’s smallest campus to being owned by the local community instead.

“The college needs to be taken back under control,” says Berta, who emailed Open Campus with his concerns. “We are 2% of the state’s population living in an area the size of the State of Connecticut.”

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Get a J-O-B Degree? In Martinsville, Va., your best bet to make money, get training or get a degree is at the community college, as the Hechinger Report writes in its piece about Patrick & Henry College.
    • “Our core mission is getting folks a J-O-B degree,” Greg Hodges told me when we talked this week, a line the college president echoes in the Hechinger piece. In a future piece, I’ll revisit Martinsville, a manufacturing capital where “textile was king, and furniture was queen.”
  • Watch: STARS Network Feature. The Small Town and Rural Student College Network of 16 colleges working together to better recruit rural students got the video treatment from 23ABC News in Bakerfield.
    • “It turned into a broader question: ‘OK, how many rural students do we even have on campus right now?’” says Marjorie Betley, executive director of the program headed by the University of Chicago. “We couldn’t even answer the question, we didn’t know.”

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