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: The need for place-based education in Montana
02: Roadside Attractions: DOE awards nearly $45M in rural ed grants

This newsletter can be read alone, but builds off last edition’s reporting from the Bitterroot Valley of Montana … 

01: Postcards

Lindsey Flather is a working mother hoping that returning to school can help her change careers in her thirties … and in largely rural states like Montana, she is exactly the type of student that colleges and employers know they must do a better job of reaching.

The former communications major decided to pursue health care after moving with her husband to the Bitterroot Valley, deciding it was one of the only financially sustainable jobs that interested her in her less than 5,000-person town. 

She is urgently needed in Montana, where 52 of 56 counties are considered medically underserved by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. Nearly half of the state’s nurses say they plan on retiring or leaving the profession in the next five years. 

That’s left Montana’s labor department predicting more than 5,000 expected annual job openings for health care professionals this decade.

Montana has responded with aggressive efforts to attract more adult students to healthcare and other in-demand fields, from construction to manufacturing. Yet the obstacles to training students in rural areas like the Bitterroot Valley are many. 

Almost every day last semester, Flather had to commute two-hours roundtrip to Missoula College, just to take one hour-long chemistry class that wasn’t offered at the local community college.

She was only able to make it work because her mother-in-law could watch her toddler during the day. But not everybody has such options, particularly among the mid-career adult learners that are quickly becoming the main target for states trying to retrain the workforce. 

Many of her peers struggle to keep up, like the mother of five whose husband works construction and often can’t find childcare.

“There are a lot of ambitious students out here,” Flather says, but the distance between them and educational options often makes it difficult to make it all the way through to a new career. 

“Once we have the pre-reqs done here, we’re either stuck taking a job without much of an opportunity to advance, or we have to commute, which takes time and money.”

The challenges that both rural students and employers face are very familiar to Montana Labor Commissioner Sarah Swanson. 

The former owner of a sprawling John Deere dealership in remote northeastern Montana, she remembers struggling to find highly-skilled workers because there wasn’t a single state college or university in her 14 county region.

Roughly 68,000 working-age Montanans say they are only working part-time or not at all because they can’t access childcare, which often means they also can’t travel to take classes either.  

“That’s why expanding access to place-based education is so important,” Swanson says.

While rural areas have long faced workforce challenges, the problems have been exacerbated by the rapid pace of change. 

Nearly 3 of 4 jobs that don’t require a four-year degree are under-supplied by Montana education institutions, according to a workforce report published by her department in 2022. 

Too often, information is outdated by the time colleges create new curricula and implement it, Swanson says. That’s driving Montana and other states to work with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Education Design Lab to create more flexible, skills-based, education models that can actively adapt to workforce needs. 

“We don’t currently have a way to interface industry with higher ed and rapidly respond as fast as things are changing.” Swanson says. “At its core, the Ed Design Lab’s philosophy is to simply build a better architecture.”

At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Education Design Lab, one student said she was struggling to juggle three jobs while studying communications so she can help run her grandma’s old swing business. 

Another was earning her general science degree and wanted to become a mortician, but felt like her advisors didn’t know how to help her apply for mortuary school — a problem that Montana’s in-demand careers focus is unlikely to help.

“Placement testing for college was a daunting situation for students with testing anxiety,” one student said. “Finding a good paying job that respects a student’s schedule is challenging,” another added.

When Flather was asked how employers could help, she thought about how much her life had shifted since she graduated from the University of Colorado in 2009, just two years after the iPhone came out. 

In an accelerating world, employers had to know that change might be the only thing that students like her could plan on. 

“Providing more resources and ongoing training is super huge, especially the way technology in any career is advancing, constantly,” she said.

After interviewing business leaders and students, the Design Lab puts together course modules made up of skill-based “badges” that can be mixed and matched to quickly create new types of curriculum. 

Students can see online what jobs they can get with a short-term credential, and how getting additional education (such as another certificate or a degree) could increase their pay. 

They also know which employers have “verified” a credential, signaling that graduates of the program would automatically qualify for their roles upon graduation.

These programs are some of the most aggressive efforts yet to showcase the value of higher education, even as many question it — and Flather, for one, says that help is needed as she weighs the costs of her new pathway.

“It’s huge to have something very clearly organized and laid out, because a lot of the pay isn’t transparent or easy to find,” she says.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Feds invest $44.5M in rural grants. The U.S. Department of Education is offering funds to 22 higher education institutions, including eight community colleges, to boost enrollment in rural areas. Reporting that only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds in rural communities are enrolled in higher education — compared to almost half (48%) of their urban/suburban counterparts — the department noted that rural students face added challenges in getting reliable transportation, high-speed internet, and affordable housing. 
  • WSU residencies aim to address disparities. Pierce Claassen is the son of a third-generation wheat farmer in Clarkston, a small town in the far southeastern corner of Washington State … and, now, the first in his family to go into medicine, helped in part by new residencies at the 11-year-old Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, which is helping rural students like him address health care disparities in the communities they’re from. 

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