60 miles from college: Lack of education, a way out of poverty, could kill rural America
BALDWIN – The squeals of elementary students at recess coming from a playground behind a two-story building and the occasional hiss of a tractor-trailer’s tires on the main drag a couple of blocks away serve as the only soundtrack as a quartet of high school students saunter down a Baldwin street, heading for some fun away from school.
Traffic stops briefly as it leaves town, next to the county courthouse and a gas station at the town’s only traffic signal — a flashing red light.
It’s a stereotypical rural small-town scene.
Two hundred miles southeast, just on the edge of the University of Michigan campus, it’s a little bit louder — a jackhammer pounds away nearby, a steady stream of cars rolls along a nearby street and students crowd sidewalks. A homeless man pleads for help. Inside a coffee shop, one of several within a couple blocks, tables are full of studying students, professors working on plans and townies just sipping a latte.
It’s a stereotypical college town scene.
The towns show little similarity. Ann Arbor is in Washtenaw County, one Michigan’s richest county in terms of median household income. Baldwin is in Lake County, Michigan’s poorest in terms of median household income.
Washtenaw is Michigan’s most educated county, with the highest percentage of adults with some sort of college degree. Lake County is among Michigan’s least educated, with the second-lowest percentage of adults with some sort of college degree.
With a 40-minute drive west to the nearest community college or a up to 40-minute drive south to a four-year college, Lake County is smack dab in the middle of a higher education desert, one of handful of such spots in Michigan, most located north of a line on a map from Grand Rapids to Port Huron. In that same 40-minute drive, an Ann Arbor resident can reach four community colleges and two public four-year colleges.
The deserts are home to Michigan’s poorest counties, the kind that need a boost from something bringing jobs. But there’s a vicious circle at work — no easy access to education past high school, which means no highly trained workforce, which means no reason for a small manufacturing company or a software firm to come to town, which means not many jobs that pay well, which means more poverty, which means it’s harder for people to have money for college, which means … well, the circle just continues.
“The skills gap is going to kill rural America,” said Randy Smith, president/director of the Rural Community College Alliance. “If there’s nowhere for students to get the training they need, they aren’t going to be able to get the jobs they need.”
Pursuit of education
Every day for her last two years of high school, Nicole Mooney got to leave her midmorning class at Baldwin High School 15 minutes early.
She grabbed her lunch and headed to a school bus, where she would eat while it bounced down the road, heading west from Baldwin, through the Huron-Manistee National Forest on a ride of between a half-hour and 45 minutes to West Shore Community College.
First Baldwin graduate to attend UM in over a decade
Nicole Mooney, 21, will be the first Baldwin graduate in over a decade to attend the University of Michigan. There, she’ll study earth and environmental science.
Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press
After an hour and a half at most in class — over the two years, she took English Composition I&II, Intro to Psychology, Interpersonal Communications, College Algebra, Western Civilization to 1600, and U.S. History to 1865 through dual enrollment — it was back on the bus and a trip back across part of two counties.
Lake County, where Mooney grew up, doesn’t register on a map of Michigan counties that are home to some sort of college. Neither does a huge chunk of the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the entirety of the Thumb or some of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Michigan’s 15 public universities, 28 public community colleges and dozens of private colleges and universities are largely clustered around each other, creating large higher education deserts elsewhere in the state.
That’s hurting students all across the state, from high schoolers to those seeking career training. It also is a large hurdle to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new goal of having 60% of all Michigan residents attain some sort of postgraduate degree. It’s also a barrier to economic mobility, trapping rural residents in poverty.
Like many high school students across Michigan, Mooney had a limited number of classes available to her. Dual enrollment in college classes offered a chance to both take advanced classes Baldwin High couldn’t offer and to stockpile college credits for free.
“We’re a small rural community, fairly isolated,” said Baldwin school Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer. “We’re extremely rural. Have to go at least a half-hour to get to a Meijer. We’re trying to create a culture where (students) expect to go to college.”
Baldwin is making a push to help students understand that if they want to improve their financial well-being — more than 90% of the school system’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a key measure of poverty — they need some sort of post-high school training.
But that’s hard to do in education deserts, Heitmeyer said.
“When you don’t have somewhere close by,” it’s harder for students to get that training, he said, often for a simple reason — it’s just not easy to get to a college.
Lisa McIntyre, 27, lives just outside of Rogers City in the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula. Neither she nor her husband, both graduates of Rogers City High School, have college degrees. They live in another of Michigan’s education deserts.
McIntyre works at a gas station. She’s worked other minimum-wage jobs for the last decade or so. Her husband works a combination of construction and landscape jobs. Combined, they made about $32,000 last year and should be around there again this year.
“I really wanted to be a nurse,” McIntyre said, adding she loved helping people and thought nursing would be a stable career. “But I couldn’t really get anywhere for training after high school. I didn’t really have a car that was good for a lot of driving, so driving anywhere not right around here just wasn’t an option.”
The nearest community college, in Alpena, is about 30 miles from Rogers City. The nearest four-year school is Lake Superior State University, about 85 miles away. Central Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University are each about 130 miles south.
“We’re making it (financially), but I wonder sometimes if it would have been different if we went to college,” she said.
Deserts across America
Along the Rocky Mountains, in the Great Plains across the top of Midwest and in the Deep South, hundreds of American counties are education deserts, places that lack easy access to higher education in their county or commuting zone.
“Populations matters in where community colleges are located. Geography matters and transportation matters,” he said.
Money matters as well — both for starting a school and running it. It takes millions of dollars to start one and then it must attract enough students to pay the operating costs. It can also be a challenge to recruit faculty to a rural area because of low pay and lack of job options for spouses.
All that means it can be tough for students living in these areas to find a way to college or post-high school training.
“The average commute for one of our students is 25 miles,” Smith said. “Depending on where the college is and what the season (of the year) is, that can be tough.”
Online classes are an option, but that’s hard as well. Lots of rural America lacks reliable broadband internet needed for video classes. And some subjects simply need hands-on teaching — it can be hard to teach welding online, for example.
Having a college nearby is important, Hillman and Weichman wrote in their paper.
“If higher education is to better serve students and expand educational opportunities, then stakeholders must prioritize the importance of place and understand how it shapes college options,” they wrote. But too much higher education policy at the federal and state level doesn’t take that into account.
“For prospective students who live in communities with few educational options, their educational destinations are bound by whatever institution is nearby. Not all students have the luxury of shopping around, and in many cases there are no alternatives from which to choose.”
And that can mean not going to college at all.
Big Bad Axe
Bad Axe is big, at least compared with what else is around. It has an active downtown. There’s a KFC, McDonald’s and the normal slate of other fast food restaurants common to everywhere U.S.A. The Walmart is bigger than most city blocks. A few payday loan places appear on the outskirts of town, like just about every other city or village in rural Michigan.
To get there, go down roads uncluttered by cars but with the occasional beet trucks slowing your drive. Farmhouses mix with old barns, fields full of corn, and streams wandering through woods and under the road. Down the way, an old guy stops into a gas station to buy a freshly made sandwich and doughnut while a lady on the other side of the gas station looks at guns and stacks of ammo boxes at a counter to rival Cabela’s. She buys a handgun, milk and a couple of lottery tickets.
But missing from Bad Axe — and any other city in Michigan’s Thumb — is a community college. The community college nearest to Bad Axe is in either Flint or Port Huron, both about 60 miles away on country roads.
So a beige sign advertising Mid-Michigan College outside a one-story building on the outskirts of Bad Axe is a bit jarring, if for nothing else than the fact that Mid-Michigan College is located 115 miles to the west.
But on a recent Thursday, 17 students are splayed across a classroom in small groups, listening to Julie Carr, an adjunct faculty at Mid-Michigan teach them about introductions in her college-level speech class.
Julie Carr, an adjunct professor of speech from Mid-Michigan Community College, addresses her class at Huron Area Technical Center Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Next, Joshua Swathwood, 18, a senior from Sebewaing who attends Elkton-Pigeon Bay Port Schools, talks about classes that he takes offered by Mid-Michigan Community College. Finally, student names are seen near colleges on a bulletin board in the hallway. Julie Carr, an adjunct professor of speech from Mid-Michigan Community College, addresses her class at Huron Area Technical Center Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Next, Joshua Swathwood, 18, a senior from Sebewaing who attends Elkton-Pigeon Bay Port Schools, talks about classes that he takes offered by Mid-Michigan Community College. Finally, student names are seen near colleges on a bulletin board in the hallway. Julie Carr, an adjunct professor of speech from Mid-Michigan Community College, addresses her class at Huron Area Technical Center Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Next, Joshua Swathwood, 18, a senior from Sebewaing who attends Elkton-Pigeon Bay Port Schools, talks about classes that he takes offered by Mid-Michigan Community College. Finally, student names are seen near colleges on a bulletin board in the hallway. Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press
It’s an attractive partnership for all involved. Huron County gets job training, college prep classes and workforce development it might not have otherwise had. Mid-Michigan gets students and tuition payments, along with a chance to fulfill its mission to “empower learners and transform communities,” said Scott Mertes, vice president of community outreach and advancement, even if the communities it is working with are a hundred miles from its main campus. Mid-Michigan is also working on partnerships in Tuscola and Sanilac counties.
A classroom over, past a hallway logo of Mid-Michigan, Erin Wylie is teaching a psychology class — 22 students, the majority with laptops open earnestly taking notes.
Most of the dual-enrollment classes are taught in one of three classrooms in a row, located behind a closed door at the end of a hallway. It’s a separate world from the other teaching — including career tech — going on for high school students in the rest of the Huron Tech Center building.
The one exception? Because it needed access to an emergency chemical rinse-off shower, the biology lab is carved out in the back of a machine shop. But there’s no skimping there — expensive microscopes dot the tables, while a camera hookup to the instructor’s microscope shows what he is seeing on a large flat-screen television on a stand at the front of the area.
Chloe Guest, 17, a senior at Laker High School in nearby Pigeon, is taking dual-enrollment classes because, like Mooney in Baldwin, she has taken the classes her smaller district can offer.
Now she’s looking for a jump-start on college.
“You don’t have a teacher talking to you all the time here, checking in on whether you did everything,” she said. “You have to do it. We’re constantly studying.”
In addition to getting students used to college-level classes, the dual enrollment means they can graduate with dozens of college credits already taken for free. That’s a big deal for holding down cost for students coming out of rural families without a lot of money.
That’s an opportunity being missed in all those education deserts across Michigan.
Those areas “can’t afford to start a new community college,” Mertes said. “We are in a rural area (with the main college). We want to help as many communities as we can. Partnerships are the best way” to get that done.
“We want to provide services they lack. Online is certainly available but our commitment is to look for face-to-face instruction first.”
There is no statewide push in Michigan to form more of those partnerships. That’s because in Michigan, each community college is run by a board elected by voters in the community college’s district, without any reporting to a statewide authority.
And there’s not likely to be, said Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.
“We are so decentralized that any time you mention state coordination, people break out in hives.”