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 evolution of eastern Kentucky
02: Roadside Attractions: Let’s talk Texas

01: Postcards

A few years ago, Sara White moved back to Harlan County, the rural Kentucky community where she was raised. 

Her home is coal county. Well, was: The pickaxes are mostly gone. Now, the closest you can get to the glory days is in a rail car shuttling through a former U.S. Steel mine, as the area’s mining history is told by automated displays of coal-dusted mannequins at the tourist trap Portal 31.

White has long known some of the challenges that come up in the region, having spent decades in eastern Kentucky as an education advocate at Berea College and, later, the nonprofit Partners for Rural Impact.

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To her, students had limited vision when it came to their future education and career goals: when all you know is what’s in front of you, it’s hard to imagine what else is possible. Most of the professionals here are in teaching or medicine, which makes it difficult to see how students can turn their interests into other career pathways.

“Those are really the only mentors and role models they have,” says White, who works remotely as the Southeast regional admissions recruiter for the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania. 

“If you wanted to pursue something artistic, there isn’t a lot of demand locally for that, outside of teaching art. Even in the science fields, it’s really hard to consider being, say, a biologist, when the only person you hear talking about biology is your biology teacher,” White says.

There are other ways her home is changing though. When she was growing up, highschoolers couldn’t wait to get their driver’s licenses, for example. Now, it feels like her nephews and all their friends could care less — and even without cars, their exposure to the wider world is greater than ever.

“They don’t care because they all connect virtually anyway,” she says. “I don’t hear much from them about career planning, but if I do, it’s all about gaming and other virtual stuff.”

Her observations are particularly interesting at a time where many wonder if getting a four-year degree is still worth it. The connection between education and career outcomes is especially important for lower-income rural students, who often can’t afford to risk pursuing degrees that won’t pay off in the long run. 

What they are exposed to plays a major role in determining the pathways they may choose, whether or not that route best serves them. And rural areas are more likely to have a mismatch between the types of courses available to students and the projected local jobs of the future. 

That’s according to the Georgetown University Center on Education Workforce, which found in a recent report that a “Great Misalignment” is occurring across America, with most labor markets needing to shift at least half of their middle-skills credentials programs to accurately match projected local labor demand.

Rural areas are particularly struggling with that mismatch because they tend to have fewer educational institutions, which makes it harder for them to meet broader job-training needs as a result. 

Eastern Kentucky is one of the most misaligned stretches in the eastern United States, according to that Georgetown report — to more accurately align with future workforce demand, the darkest-blue counties in these charts would need to shift more than 70% of their credentials programs.

The Georgetown report relies on 2019-2021 IPEDS data from the US Department of Education, which means it could be missing some of the fast-track and shorter-certification programs that many rural colleges have started offering in fields like construction, welding, and nursing. 

Still, the report provides an interesting shorthand for universities and colleges to start assessing whether the programs they offer are well-suited to prepare their students for the types of careers that will be available to them.

It’s a topic that is often on the mind for Heather Davis, the director of transition services at Eastern Kentucky University, which is based in Richmond, a suburb of Lexington that borders this stretch of misalignment.

Davis works mostly with adult learners who have never attended college or transfer students of various age groups. They often joined the military, married young and had a family, or were just forced to immediately enter the workforce. 

“Regardless, the narrative is the same: I had a big life event happen, and I put myself and my education on the backburner,” she says. 

“Those who do pursue education later are either pursuing a lifelong dream or they’re working in a place that is willing to pay for their continuing education, and they know they’ll be promoted once they get that credential.” 

One example at Eastern Kentucky University: The Associate’s of Applied Science in Nursing program, which is “blowing up right now,” Davis says. 

Offering a quick path to becoming a registered nurse, the program isn’t just a good example of degree-workforce alignment

It also shows how colleges can assure prospective students that the skills they learn will make them hire-able after graduation: Last year’s cohort reported a 100% pass rate in national licensing exams, compared to the state average pass rate of 77% in 2022. 

“If there is a two-year degree that is lucrative here, it’s AASN,” Davis says.

She’s seen similar success for rural students in four-year programs like early childhood education, business, and social work — in fact, the university just partnered with Somerset Community College to start offering a new social work degree an hour away in Pulaski County, one of those rural counties that currently struggles with significant misalignment.

“There’s a lot of people in social work who at first didn’t need a bachelor’s degree, and now they do to progress in their careers, so that is a huge need,” Davis says.

Such partnerships between four-year universities and nearby colleges present one option as regions work to address credential misalignment. Hybrid scheduling could also help, as some institutions open programs that only require in-person attendance once a week (or month/quarter), making it easier for rural students to pursue degree programs that may not be offered in their local area.

Regardless, it will need to be an evolving discussion for universities as they try to adapt to a future that is constantly changing. 

“We are trying to give more voice to the programs we have that are creating credentials that our service region needs,” Davis says. “However, at some point we’re going to be pretty saturated with people in those jobs, and then we’re going to have to move somewhere else.”

02: Roadside Attractions

  • A Wisconsin education roadshow. After higher education reporter Kimberly Wethal found that rural students are facing numerous roadblocks in pursuing their postsecondary goals, the Wisconsin State Journal decided to partner with the College for Rural Wisconsin and others to host the “College2U Roadshow” at Nekoosa High School this Tuesday.
    • Part college fair, part panel discussion with rural students and colleges, the event is a fascinating glimpse of how media outlets and educators can partner to bring valuable information to the areas they serve.
  • Talk with us about Texas. My colleagues at Open Campus are hosting a virtual webinar on July 16 about the future of higher education in Texas, featuring journalists from our four partner newsrooms around the state. Hope to see you there! Register here
  • Hillbillies in higher ed? In this op-ed for the Daily Montanan, University of Puget Sound professor and political economist Emilie Peine writes about using her classes to confront rural stereotypes and bias in academia, dividing deep into how those discussions have challenged assumptions and changed perceptions of rural life.

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