What a decline in rural colleges means for rural communities

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Spring campus scene at Montana State University in Bozeman Montana. (Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Spring campus scene at Montana State University in Bozeman Montana. (Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rural students have historically had fewer choices in higher education than suburban students. Rural colleges are now struggling more than ever.

Many colleges have had to cut dozens of majors and academic programs to stay afloat.

"If you live in populated places, you get the good options, and if you don't, you just get things that prepare you to go to work," Andrew Koricich says.

The number of rural students thinking about going to college has plummeted. And America's most rural states have slashed funding for colleges, in some states as much as 30%.

As a result – for those rural students who do want to pursue a college degree, increasingly, their only option is very far away from home.

"There are a lot of students who want an education and don’t want to leave everything they know and love to do that," Koricich adds.

Today, On Point: Steep declines in rural higher education, and the impact it's having on students, and the nation as a whole.


Andrew Koricich, executive director at the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. Associate Professor of higher education at Appalachian State University. Co-author of the ARRC report Introducing our nation's rural-serving postsecondary institutions. 

Also Featured

Adia Witherspoon, a senior at Emporia State University in Kansas.

Max McCoy, former journalism professor at Emporia State University.

Burton Webb, president of the University of Pikeville in Kentucky.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Growing up in El Dorado, Kansas, Adia Witherspoon knew she was going to go to college. Even though El Dorado has a population of about 12,000, and her high school graduating class was just 16 students.

ADIA WITHERSPOON: Not a lot of kids there end up going to college. And if they do, it's usually like the local community college. I wasn't really exposed to other options.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s her mother who infused Adia with the drive to get to college. A single mom, she had always stressed to Adia that going to college was her only option if she wanted to get out of poverty or get out of town. But when Adia began her college search, she wanted to stay close to family while an undergrad. And that’s how she stumbled upon Emporia State University, in Emporia, Kansas, about a 45-minute drive away from Adia’s hometown.

WITHERSPOON: I knew Emporia was close. And most importantly I knew it was really affordable. Because I was raised by a single mom, and it was like a school that could be covered by like financial aid or no school at all. Emporia kind of fit that need for me. I think it's probably the only school in Kansas that you can just go, you know, and you can afford it.


CHAKRABARTI: So, when Adia graduated high school in 2019, she went straight to Emporia State.

WITHERSPOON: I started as a political science major when I came here. And I didn't, it's like you're 18, you don't really know what majors are. You just kind of think like, "I wanna be a lawyer, so I'm gonna go do this." And I realized I didn't wanna do that, and I was like, "Okay. Well, I did okay in my science classes in high school, so I guess I'm just gonna give this a shot." And I switched like my second semester of my freshman year to earth science. And then it, it just kind of stuck.

CHAKRABARTI: It's more than that. Adia loves her new major. She’s studying geospatial analysis, meaning she creates digital maps for things like flood analysis, or predicting when a river will dry up or when a coast will move. A skill needed more today than ever.

WITHERSPOON: I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. If I hadn't come here, I wouldn't have discovered my own talents as a student. I think going to a small high school, you're really only being taught what they have to teach you. We didn't really have a lot of electives. There weren't really clubs, you know, it's just like math, English, science. And coming to college, I've learned there's so many niche little things that I'm good at that I wouldn't have otherwise, you know, realized about myself.

CHAKRABARTI: Adia is set to get her degree this December. Her next step should be getting a job. But all of a sudden, those plans are in turmoil, because Emporia State University is in turmoil. Last fall, the school announced it is cutting her beloved earth sciences program.

WITHERSPOON: It was devastating. It was really hard. I think my mental health took a really huge blow last fall.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Emporia State University is just one of an increasing number of institutions of higher education in rural America that are under considerable financial stress, or have outright closed their doors. For students at these rural colleges, other options may be few and far between, and when their local college shuts down, the impact reverberates across the entire rural community.

Even when rural colleges don’t close, their programmatic cuts run deep. At Emporia State, degree programs in history, English, political science, journalism, most modern languages, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, some biology programs, some business programs, and others …. all gone.

WITHERSPOON: There were a lot. And it was full programs and then it was just like minors and majors. But really nobody was left untouched. Everyone lost some field of study in their building.

CHAKRABARTI: Adia Witherspoon says the cuts have changed Emporia State’s character, if she were in high school today, she wouldn't think about going to college here.

WITHERSPOON: It all comes down to being close to home. When you grow up in a small community, it's so tight knit, you know, everyone, there's no way to not know everyone. And it's a lot easier to get a kid to go to school an hour away than it is to get them to move across the country. But they're not going to do that if the school an hour away provides nothing new for them or nothing interesting. Because school does cost money and if you're coming from a situation where maybe you're not the most financially privileged, you're not going to spend money on a school that doesn't even offer a program you like, that's a waste of money.

CHAKRABARTI: Emporia State University was founded in 1863. It is the third oldest university in Kansas. Times have been tough more recently. Enrollment has dropped 7% in the last five years. Take online students out of the mix and the enrollment decline jumps to 29%. Public funding has also been declining. From 2008 to 2018, the state of Kansas reduced its per student funding of colleges and universities by 22%, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Emporia State cut almost $9 million out of its budget in the past five years, but it still faced a $5.6 million deficit last academic year.

Adia says her fellow students, especially the younger ones, can see the writing on the wall.

WITHERSPOON: A lot of the people I know who have said like, "Oh, I'll transfer to a bigger school." They end up kind of stopped in their tracks because that school doesn't offer flat rate tuition and the tuition is three times as much. And so I know for me personally, I think it definitely feels like we're kind of stuck here now. Cause if you can't afford three times this rate, which most students can't. You kind of just have to deal with it and you just have to stay here.

CHAKRABARTI: Adia Witherspoon, a senior at Emporia State University in Kansas. She will be graduating with that earth sciences degree in December, but no future student will be able to follow in her footsteps, as that program ends with her class. Her story first appeared in Jon Marcus’s series of stories about rural higher ed in the Hechinger Report.

So there is a major contraction going on in higher education across the country. But rural colleges and the students they serve may be feeling the squeeze the most.

When Adia says, “You just have to deal with it,” she’s saying that college may already be a reach for rural students. Options are limited in rural communities, where many want to stay, and those options are shrinking. Schools or larger universities in other parts of their state could be another choice, but often, distance and cost put those options also out of reach.

So, what is going on here? Why are rural colleges being forced to close, consolidate or slash programs such as Emporia State had to do? And what impact does losing those colleges have on rural communities and the nation as a whole?

Andrew Koricich joins us. He’s the Executive Director at the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. He's also an associate professor of Higher Education at Appalachian State University.

And he joins us from Boone, North Carolina. Professor Koricich, welcome to On Point.

ANDREW KORICICH: Hi Meghna. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: How would you describe the state of change in rural colleges and universities between now and say 20 to 25 years ago?

KORICICH: So one of the things I think we've seen for rural colleges is really a confluence of factors that have been building up for a long time that are about investment from the states into these colleges. That are about investing economically in rural places to keep college graduates local. And then we come to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it threw a lot of things into chaos for a lot of educational operations in the country, including high schools and colleges.

And once that happened, folks really started to see the challenges that rural students were facing. For a long time, internet connectivity had been a problem in rural areas, but it wasn't until the pandemic that people started to say, this is an issue. And I think that's what started to happen, is between funding and enrollment changes and then just this shock to the system with the pandemic, it pushed a lot of things to the forefront that had been very tentatively managed to that point.

CHAKRABARTI: I'd like to get some clarification on how much of a difference rural colleges and universities are seeing, say, versus their suburban or urban counterparts. Because as I mentioned earlier, there is a kind of contraction going on across higher ed in the entire nation. And in some places, schools are closing outright because there was an oversaturation of higher education institutions in those locations.

But would you say that rural colleges and universities are faring a similar challenge to those in other places or a greater challenge?

KORICICH: I think it's a different challenge. I think, in rural areas there's not so much of an issue of oversaturation of colleges. It's very much the opposite, that the local college is often the only college. And so it really puts a lot of responsibility on that college to serve a lot of needs in the community.

Which is very different from being in a more populated area where you may have half a dozen colleges within a commutable distance. I think the other challenge that comes up for rural colleges that's just different is being more geographically isolated.

In more urban areas you can attract a lot of people from a lot of different places because of the amenities that a large city may be able to offer. Campuses that offer a wide range of services, and majors, and that you have public transit and the like, that make it really easy to access those things.

For rural colleges, they're really dependent upon their local region and their local regions' demand for higher education and the value they see in their local college. And whenever you're in that situation, the population changes of your region are going to inherently affect your enrollment. For these colleges that are in regions that are losing population, because they're so localized in the students they serve, it's really hard for those colleges to grow enrollment in light of that.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Koricich, I want to dig into more deeply some of the reasons that you mentioned earlier about why rural colleges and universities are facing particular challenges in keeping their doors open or keeping their compliment of programs as full as they would like to be. First and foremost, you had said funding has declined and I am seeing reports here, the one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that I had quoted earlier.

They found that spending on higher education fell in 16 of the 20 most rural states in this country between 2008 and 2018. And in some places, higher education funding per student declined by more than 30% in that period. Places like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania. What's driving that or what drove that, at least over that 10-year period, a constant decline in state funding for these students?

KORICICH: The biggest thing that was a factor here was the Great Recession. Higher education for most states is still something that is used to balance budgets. And so whenever your state has higher obligations for things like Medicaid contributions, unemployment, other social services, even K-12 education.

Where they end up making the budget work a lot of times is with higher ed funding, that the federal government requires states to provide public K-12 education. It does not require them to provide public higher education. And so whenever you're dealing with the economic shocks of the Great Recession, one of the big reactions was whenever other public services are in greater demand, we had to cut funding to higher education.

Which is really unfortunate because at the same time, more people were trying to access higher education to re-skill themselves for new jobs, in light of the recession that's happening. The challenge with that is state funding for things like higher education, they're like your credit card and your waistline, where it's really easy to do the damage quickly and it takes a long time to undo those things after it's happened.

And so that's why we see the recession happening 2007, 2008 or so, and it took many states more than a decade to get to pre-recession funding levels. And then there were, as you were mentioning, there's a lot of states that haven't even done that.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm wondering if those again, it was a little difficult on our deadlines to find numbers between 2018 and 2023.

Have some states, at least maybe in those, that list I mentioned, or others, since then, been able to level fund their colleges and universities to at least stop the bleeding?

KORICICH: So some states have made some inroads and have made some attempts. My home state of Pennsylvania has made some recent increased investments in some of their public higher ed systems in the state.

And so there is some movement. But a lot of times it's not enough to make up for years of underfunding and all of the things that sort of accumulate over time from that lack of funding. And then, just as we get to a point where a lot of things have recovered funding wise from the pandemic, or excuse me, from the recession, as we go into the COVID-19 pandemic, that also created shocks to systems economically and for funding to institutions.

But at the same time, as we saw states, maybe decreasing investment, the federal government was providing funds to states to shore up their institutions during COVID-19. And so it's one of those things where as soon as you stood back up there's something else to knock you back down again.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. But do you think that states could have done a better job in using that, those COVID relief funds to help institutions of higher education, especially, particularly these rural ones that we're talking about, since they are so important in the communities they serve.

KORICICH: Yes, I think, it requires a really high-level holistic view of which institutions have the most need, and looking at which institutions have the most ability to get more funds of their own.

States have their big public flagship universities that many of which have hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in their endowment. They have mechanisms to fundraise when they need it, that a lot of small rural colleges don't have that same ability to just shake donations from the trees. And so I think it's really important for states to think about that capacity to find more of your own money.

And target state funding to institutions that don't have that capacity. Their inability to do that is not a sign of their quality. It's not a sign of their importance. A lot of times it's a sign of existing institutional wealth and resources. And so I think there's a prioritization that has to come and say that it's really important to do this.

But even when we look beyond public institutions, very recently we had the closure of Iowa Wesleyan University in Southeast Iowa. And it is a private, faith-based institution. It was a lot of debt issues. And one of the things that came out was they had requested COVID relief money from the state government and were denied.

And we can talk about the degree to which those funds should go to private colleges, but now without that college, there is not a four-year college in that southeastern region of the state to serve that community. And so there is a state interest in using those funds to shore up even private colleges where the state doesn't have a public college of their own.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. In fact, we heard from a listener, talking about the closing of a college in Iowa, and he also talked about the impact that had on the community. We'll come back to that topic in a moment. Because it's really important, the sort of widespread impact that happens when these rural colleges close.

But I wanted to just shift gears a little bit and look to another reason, an underlying reason for this, it almost seems like the snowballing of shrinkage or challenges that rural colleges are facing. And enrollment, I'm not sure if we can decouple this entirely from the financial question, but I'm seeing here that enrollment in rural colleges was on the decline in many places anyway, and that's just widening the gap between urban and rural parts of the country when it comes to the percentage of residents who have degrees of higher education.

In urban places, it's about 35% of people have a college degree. Nationally, in rural places, it's more like 21%. So that's a 14% gap there. What do you think is driving that?

KORICICH: So there's a lot of things that can be driving this over time. Historically some of it is just the degree to which higher education institutions are reaching out to rural communities and reaching out to them early.

If you're an institution that is showing up at a rural high school and talking to 11th graders, and that's the first time you're there, it's already too late. College plans start being developed much earlier on. And I think one of the things that shows the opportunities that are here for colleges in trying to reach more rural students is, as you said, degree holding rates are lower in rural areas compared to cities.

But we also see that high school graduation rates are higher in rural areas. And so, we're getting, rural places are doing really good up through high school graduation, and then there's something happening with higher education. Some of it is the ability to go straight to work. That you may come out, there may be a local industry, whether it's natural resources based or manufacturing.

That coming out of high school, those jobs are really good paying jobs. And so that can sometimes entice students to go for that wage quickly without seeing that there may be limited career progression or that industry could just up and leave someday.

I think it's also experience with college. When you have a lower college degree holding rate anyway, in these communities, it just means there are more families that don't have experience going to college already, and that's really powerful to be able to look at parents and siblings and cousins that have gone through the college experience to demystify it a little bit.

And when you don't have that, it's harder to figure the whole process out.

CHAKRABARTI: Does national politics have any, or is it playing any role in this declining enrollment? Because there has seems to have been quite a bit of research in the past several years about declining trust that Americans have in higher education.

I think a couple of years ago, Pew did a survey that found specifically amongst Republican Americans that they lacked strong confidence in higher education by quite a significant percentage, is that playing a role here?

KORICICH: I think it is. Especially when you don't have a lot of exposure to people who've gone to college and be able to hear their firsthand experience.

What you know of college is what you hear in public discourse. And we've seen public discourse shift a lot towards distrust of higher education, an antagonistic view, even that it's corrosive to our society. And whenever you hear that, and if you hear that even from within your own family context, that can have a really powerful influence on deciding whether you see college as an option for you, whether college is objectively good or bad.

And, if this is something that even my colleagues and I are thinking a lot about, is understanding what those attitudes are. Because I think we suspect that there's a lot more nuance and complexity to that, that it's not just that rural conservatives don't want their kids to go to college.


I think some of that assumes that rural folks are naive and they're not. They can have complex feelings about college, but many of them know that can still open up a lot of important opportunities for their children. And so just because it's not a clean and easy understanding or set of feelings, doesn't mean they don't know that there's value.

And I think some of it depends what type of college, what type of program, and research will even show people may be distrustful of higher ed broadly, but they really love their local college. Because it's not abstract to them.

CHAKRABARTI: I was just going to say exactly that part of the complexity, which almost never gets discussed, to be frank, in forums like ours, is that when people are asked generic questions about do you trust higher ed or not, what flows into their mind is, like you said, what they're hearing in various forms of media, et cetera.

But, I'm thinking that if the question were more specific, do you trust your local institution? Do you trust the college that's in your town or the town next door? I'm guessing that the numbers get much higher, that they do, because they can see the direct impact of having an institution of higher education in the community.

KORICICH: Yes, they can see it in their own lives. They can see it in their family's lives. They can possibly be running a small business that is dependent upon the existence of that college. And I think that's the real disconnect that gets overlooked. Is we spend a lot of national news stories on a relatively small set of colleges, too.

It's the most selective, the wealthiest colleges we're talking about, Stanford and Harvard and the like. And those are not the places that the overwhelming majority of students attend. They attend more broad access regional colleges, both public and private, as well as community colleges.

And those institutions are different, and the way they carry out their mission is different. And in rural places, these institutions are really mindful of their local culture and local politics and how to navigate those and still provide the education that people need.

CHAKRABARTI: It is quite a shame that media flattens everything in the way that we do.

And I'm sure you're getting sick about hearing in the news all the time, Stanford, Harvard, whatever. Because you're right, most people, those are not, by far, most Americans who seek a degree in higher education do not go to those institutions. So we need to pay more attention to places that are supported by the states.

And actually, that's why I find it even more tragic that national politics does interfere so much with state and local politics. Because ultimately citizens are being asked to, they're being asked questions about funding or they're voting on folks. Who go to their local state houses, who make decisions on higher education funding, and national politics really insinuates its way into both of those areas of decision-making for local colleges and universities.

I want to shift gears here again because we need to talk about what happens, the impact of losing an institution of higher ed in rural communities. So we spoke with someone who works at Emporia State University in Kansas. The one we talked about at the beginning of the show. This is Max McCoy, who taught at Emporia State for 17 years until he was let go last year, along with 30 or so other professors.

He taught journalism there and McCoy worries not only for his department, but that slashing programs like humanities programs could have a huge impact on certain communities of students.

MAX McCOY: Many students who are vulnerable in some way, perhaps because of their identity, their gender preferences, take your pick.

They often gravitate toward the humanities. And by destroying the humanities, we've really destroyed a home for a lot of these kids who found refuge in these programs. And this wasn't because the programs were set up to be a refuge. It wasn't because a bunch of professors got together and said, "Oh, we're going to create this safe haven."

This just naturally tended to happen, and I don't think Emporia State is unique in this respect.

CHAKRABARTI: And he is right because at Emporia State, as the list I read earlier, a lot of the humanities programs were slashed. All the way over in Alaska, the University of Alaska system cut more than 40 academic programs, mostly in the humanities. Missouri Western State University, dozens of programs cut their philosophy, sociology, English, and the like. But I'm rather sympathetic to these colleges and universities because one thing they're continuously saying is that, "We need to meet the needs of the community of the students in the community as a whole. And we are hearing that they want an education that can help them get a job for the 21st century."

And maybe it's no longer considered that the humanities departments are providing that kind of education. That's a pretty powerful argument, professor.

KORICICH: I think where I struggle with some of it is that it, first of all, it assumes that institutions know what the jobs of the 21st century are going to be.

We're not even a quarter of a way into the century, and we have a lot of jobs now that we didn't have when the century started. And I think my concern is that we're going to prepare students for the jobs that exist at this point in the 21st century, but not give them the skills to be adaptable for the rest of the century.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are talking about the plight of rural colleges and universities in America and how they're feeling more of a financial squeeze than their urban or suburban counterparts.

And what happens to communities and rural students when those colleges have to either shrink their programs or close entirely. And Andrew Koricich joins us today. He's in Boone, North Carolina. He's the executive director at the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. And professor, I wanted to talk a little bit more about the jobs question.

Because I'm seeing here, there was a great series in the Hechinger Report, as I know, and it found that A, there was already a large delta, let's put it that way, in lifetime earnings between urban and rural Americans. And part of that has to do with what we said earlier, the higher rate of college degree holders in urban places, and therefore the longer-term earnings prospect that degree offers.

So when students say that they want to have a college education that will help them find a job, you had spoken earlier about we don't know what jobs are coming in the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and I would agree with that, but students are saying that they need to have an education now that would serve them in the next two to four years.

So at Emporia State University, Brent Thomas there told the Hechinger Report that none of the majors they had stopped those humanity majors were bad, but the decision he said is made being made for us by students. "Getting a job has always been an important factor, and with every passing year, that ranks higher on their list."

So meeting that short-term need, it is pressing, isn't it?

KORICICH: It is. And that's undeniable. I think one of the challenges that I see is what Adia mentioned in one of her clips earlier. Where she's studying earth science, excuse me, and she's doing geospatial analysis. Those are things with very real-world implications and where jobs exist today.

And I think as we look at the challenges we'll have, responding to climate change, population migration, and the like, that's a really important field and that's one we should be investing in. And I think it's also about telling the story about how things like the liberal arts and humanities do prepare people for work and do prepare graduates to be adaptable in the workplace beyond just preparing someone to be a programmer or preparing someone to be a lab technician.

It can prepare people to figure out what the next jobs are in our economy. This is one of the challenges that the humanities has always faced. It's more difficult to quantify the benefit to a student, the long-term benefit of a humanities degree, versus it's easier to quantify the short-term benefit of, like you said, a computer science degree.

Because you can say, "I'm earning X my first year out of college." But the other thing that happens when, especially rural colleges close, is obviously the support and the services that the students who go to that university or college are gone. They close with the school, but there's also the broader impact on the community as a whole.

And you had mentioned Iowa Wesleyan University a few minutes ago, professor. It's interesting because we got a call from a listener, Alan from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, from that very place. And with the closure, he said, of Iowa Wesleyan University, the whole community felt the huge loss.

ALAN: We're estimating right now, we've lost over 212 to 215, people have moved out. Some of us know a lot of our friends are moving out because Iowa Wesleyan is closed. We know we're losing personnel and people, but we're also losing a place for the locals to come in and study. But our culture's definitely going to suffer in terms of the arts.

As well as businesses are suffering small, businesses have already closed and or tried to merge by having two or three businesses in the same small space downtown. There's been a lot of that. Of course, the restaurants have also suffered. So we're suffering. We're going to be suffering a lot.

CHAKRABARTI: That's On Point listener Alan in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. So what is the broader impact when a local college or university closes down? He's talking there not just about the cultural impact, but economic losses for the town.

KORICICH: Yes, and losing these colleges, it really hits in a lot of ways, very obviously, losing an educational access point is increasingly problematic for rural communities.

And as you said, even sort of cultural pieces. What do colleges just bring in as far as arts programming and the like. But then there really is, if those are not convincing, there is the economic argument. That when colleges like these close, it can be the death nail for a community. Whenever we say we've lost 212 jobs, for some folks that are listening, that might not sound like a lot, but when your community maybe only has 3,000 or 4,000 people, 200 jobs is an incredible loss.

And it's not just the direct employment of the institution, it is the other businesses that spring up. Because of the institution, retail outlets, restaurants, and the like, as well as businesses that prop up to support those other businesses. And so it really is a whole supply chain that is impacted.

And I think the question is how much is that worth to save these communities and keep them whole? Because if we're talking about issues of debt is a problem that can be solved. We can think about ways as a public that we can address some of those questions, if we believe keeping that college and that community vibrant and healthy is important.

CHAKRABARTI: So the community impact is something that really needs some very concrete solutions when really a local institution shuts down. But by this point in the show, I'm sure there are listeners out there who are thinking for the students, "Why can't they just go, even if it might be quite a ways away. But why can't they just go to their in-state, larger university instead?"

KORICICH: I think the first thing that happens is we've got this misconception of how people go to college. And we think that it's everybody packing up the family vehicle and driving, four or five, six hours away, unloading into the residence halls and the like. But for a lot of students, it's not that.

They're choosing colleges, even as Adia said, that are close, that are affordable and that offer something that they want to study. And I think it's hard for people to, some outside of rural areas, to sometimes understand that rural folks love rural areas, and they want to stay. They don't want to have to drive two, three hours away to go to college.

It also assumes like in places like Iowa, that the students who were served or would be served by Iowa Wesleyan will get admitted to the University of Iowa, which is the closest public four-year university, something like 75 miles away. But it's a state flagship. It's a big research university.

Their admission is not guaranteed. And then there's this issue of if they leave, will they come back? Because part of what happens, long-term implications are, you're losing all of these different workers and all these members of the community. But it means you're also losing teachers and doctors and the like, who are going to other places where they have vibrant options for their children, for themselves.

And so this starts to become a slow burn that starts to happen the longer it goes on.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So as we round towards the last five or six minutes of the conversation, I want to talk about solutions. About things that can be done and things that rural colleges and universities themselves are doing.

So let's look at the University of Pikeville for a moment. It's a school that sits in the middle of the Appalachian Coalfields in Pikeville, Kentucky. A town about of about 7,000 people. Interestingly, it's a two-hour drive from every interstate in every direction. It's a rural, private university, about 1,100 undergrads and roughly 900 graduate students.

But unlike many of its peers that we've been talking about today, the University of Pikeville is actually increasing its enrollment and how they're focusing on retention and attracting rural students from the area. Here's University President Burton Webb.

BURTON WEBB: So one of the things that we've done is we hired a local dean of admissions who has good relationships with all of the high schools in the region, all of the principals, superintendents, and probably most importantly, the guidance counselors.

A lot of colleges send out email blasts or might go to visit the school once or twice a year to try to recruit kids at recruitment days and things like that. Our staff is in the high schools on at least a monthly basis.

CHAKRABARTI: 50% to 60% of the university students come from within the closest 15 to 20 counties.

Many of them are low income, because about 96% of folks who attend the University of Pikeville are Pell Grant recipients, which nearly half of them receive full financial aid.

But of course, attracting rural students to a university isn't the only challenge. There's also the hurdles in keeping them there.

So when Burton Webb arrived on campus in 2016, the school's retention rate was about 40%. It's now almost 70%.

WEBB: We created an entire office of family support. We noticed fairly early on that kids who were successful moving from their freshman to sophomore year and then on to completion had families who understood the higher education context and what was needed to be successful.

And so when we recruit, over a third of our students are first generation, their parents and their grandparents have never experienced higher education. They don't know what it takes.

CHAKRABARTI: The school also provides 24/7 mental health counseling and a robust tutoring center. But President Webb says perhaps its most effective efforts have come in catering the University of Pikeville's programming to the needs of the community. And top of that list? Health care. Because the region has some of the worst health disparities in the United States, due to extremely high rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disorders, and diabetes.

WEBB: In 1990, late '95,' 96. There were some folks in the region, a banker and an attorney who got very frustrated because the only doctors that we could recruit into the area were public service doctors who would come in, serve their three or four years and leave.

So they read a paper somewhere or heard a story that if doctors are trained in an area, they tend to stay. And they both came to the college and said, "We'll put up a million dollars each if you start a medical school."

CHAKRABARTI: The medical school opened in 1997, and now Webb says on average about a third of the doctors trained at the university's med school choose to stay in Kentucky.

WEBB: If you look at the national data, the University of Pikeville is No. 1 in the nation in producing physicians for rural parts of the country. We are No. 2 in the country for producing primary care physicians. So those two mission foci have really transformed the way health care is delivered in this part of the country.

There are a dozen or more counties in this region that were medically underserved that are no longer medically underserved because of our alumni.

CHAKRABARTI: Burton Webb is the president of the University of Pikeville in Pikeville, Kentucky. Professor Koricich, how much of what you think Pikeville is doing can be scaled up or replicated in other rural colleges across the country?

KORICICH: I think, you know, what Pikeville has really tapped into is a deep understanding of who their community is and who their students are, and who their students' families are. Because there is this need to educate families on how to best support students when there isn't that experience going to college.

And we can say it is unique for a smaller, private college, primarily in a more liberal arts tradition, to have a medical school and they're getting ready to launch a dental school. But it's not about launching a medical school. It's about understanding what your community's greatest needs are.

And looking at a long-term view of those things, establishing a medical school is not something you do for two to four years out. It's something you're doing for decades worth of improvement in your region. And I think a lot of colleges, all are able to tap into these different things in whatever it is your community needs. And whatever opportunities come up around new economies, even things around winemaking and things like that are places, things like that, and tourism and hospitality. It's just knowing your region, knowing your students, and knowing what your students need to be successful.

CHAKRABARTI: So how urgent is it to find solutions to this problem? We've only got about a minute left, professor, but I'm thinking, we got calls from listeners who said, "I grew up in a small town.

I wanted to stay, there weren't any job opportunities there. I couldn't go to college there." So for example, someone called and said, "I joined the military 'cause the military also helped pay for education benefits at a larger university elsewhere." And now this caller I'm thinking of, he said he wouldn't go back to his hometown for anything.

Now, doesn't that just contribute to the cycle of depletion that these same communities have been experiencing?

KORICICH: Yes. And I think that's what makes this such a critical need to address, is we need to be shoring up these colleges. We need to make sure that we're being proactive at this point, as proactive as we can be.

At this point in making sure that there are opportunities that these institutions can contribute to healthy rural economies, because we need rural places to be vibrant. There's a lot of things that rural places do that we need beyond it just being the right thing to do. And it's going to be a lot harder and a lot more expensive for us as a society to have to scramble to get rural doctors, rural teachers, rural social workers, whenever there's just been a long shortage in training those people.

This program aired on August 10, 2023.

Headshot of Paige Sutherland

Paige Sutherland Producer, On Point
Paige Sutherland is a producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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