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 ‘bullseye’ of the demographic cliff.
02: Roadside Attractions: A public university first.

01: Postcards

North Central Michigan College sits in the small town of Petoskey, a lake country escape whose name means “where the light shines through the clouds” in the native Odawa language. 

It is a place where multi-million-dollar waterfront homes sit just a few miles from inland tar shacks and mobile home parks — and that stark disparity is a major reason why David Finley says his job as the college’s president isn’t just about education.

“We’re in the social mobility business,” he says.

North Central Michigan will have to evolve if it wants to stay in that business, though. 

For decades, the community college was known primarily as a transfer school. But while its strong liberal arts programs have it boasting an above-average success rate in sending students to four-year universities within six years — 57% compared to the national average of 48% —  that focus has left its degree offerings significantly misaligned with the region’s job demands.

In fact, that mismatch is part of what higher education scholars call a “Great Misalignment” occurring across America. The majority of  labor markets need to shift at least half of their middle-skills credential programs to accurately match projected local labor demand, according to a recent report by the Georgetown University Center on Education Workforce. 

The trend is especially stark in rural areas, which often have fewer nearby educational institutions and less ability to meet wide-ranging workforce needs as a result. And this stretch of Michigan is a particularly noteworthy example of that divide

The 51 institutions serving Detroit and its surrounding areas would need to collectively redistribute 44% of its certificate and associate’s degrees to perfectly align with future occupational demand, according to the Georgetown report. 

Contrast that with the situation in sparsely populated Charlevoix, Cheboygan, and Emmet counties, where North Central Michigan College is the sole educational provider. In order to align with the jobs of the future, the college would have to redistribute nearly two-thirds of its programs.

Certainly, not all rural communities are witnessing such a disparity between their course offerings and career opportunities. But for those that are, drastic action is needed, especially as other headwinds continue to batter rural communities, from aging demographics to rising housing costs.

North Central Michigan lies at the “bullseye of the demographic cliff,” as Finley puts it: Roughly two decades ago, the region’s K-12 population totaled around 12,000 — now it’s closer to 8,000.

That’s a major reason why North Central Michigan began seriously retooling its curriculum offerings around 2021, when the data used by Georgetown came out and showed how much work was necessary to match incoming needs from employers. 

While Finley notes that the next iteration of data should show an improvement, he embraces the report’s general message of needing to adapt to the new workforce climate. In the past few years, the college has launched a number of fast-track career programs, currently offering 13 courses ranging from two-week phlebotomist programs to 24-week medical assistant training. 

The latter was an especially interesting lesson for the longtime educator: Initially, the college had launched it as a four-semester program, thinking that would make it more attractive because it would allow poorer students to qualify for federal financial aid.

That didn’t bear out, though, with the program only graduating one or students a year. It wasn’t until they dropped it to 24 weeks that enrollment boomed, and the program is now graduating over 30 students per year.

“A returning adult learner oftentimes can’t give up two years of their life. What happened was a working parent could see light at the end of the tunnel,” Finley says.

His comment is another sign of the times: With fewer students graduating from the local K-12 system, North Central Michigan has had to cast a wider net, not just geographically but also demographically. 

That mirrors another broader trend, with national nonprofits like the Education Design Lab describing adult learners as the “new majority learner. The college is trying to cater to that demographic by offering more online courses while also raising funds for a new dorm to house transplants from further out, among other initiatives.

Ensuring students are trained for the jobs that will be available come graduation is central to the mission of community colleges. And getting it right could help improve the general public’s trust in the value of a college degree.

In urban communities, different education providers can specialize in certain course offerings while collectively meeting workforce needs. That’s often trickier in rural communities with fewer providers, says Zach Mabel, a Georgetown research professor of education and economics who contributed to the “Great Misalignment” report. 

“It’s not that institutions in rural areas are failing to a greater degree on alignment than those in urban areas, it’s that they aren’t benefiting from the complementarity that the collection of providers in larger areas offers the overall economy,” Mabel says.

The importance of specializing while still offering a wide variety of courses isn’t lost on Finley. Just as in urban areas, rural colleges tend to make their name with certain thriving programs. 

He notes that Alpena College made its mark with utility pole climbing and concrete technology programs, while Northwestern Michigan College is known for its maritime and flight academies. 

However, unlike in cities, where those programs might be separated by a few blocks, the distances between those colleges are measured in hours, not minutes.

“You have to have your hallmark programs — ours has been nursing and transfers — but then you have to also build around that. Either incrementally, or you can take a leap,” Finley says, making it clear that his college is choosing the latter by rapidly expanding its investments in tech and the trades.

It’s a jump toward alignment that doesn’t come without risk for the rural college.

“You have to get that bet right,” he says.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • It takes a village. Is the secret to getting rural kids to college leveraging the community? That’s the question The Hechinger Report asks in a piece by Javeria Salman, while recapping some of the takeaways from the sixth annual Rural Summit that met in Lexington last month.
  • In Alaska, a national first. The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted unanimously to shift its Fairbanks College of Rural and Community Development into the College of Indigenous Studies, the first of its kind within an American public university. Its focus will be on preserving indigenous languages, and will offer the world’s only bachelor’s degrees in Inupiaq and Yup’ik. 

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