Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Growing up in the ski resort town of Mount Shasta, a town of a few thousand people at the merging point of State Highway 89 and I-5, Miranda Connelly is well aware of the paradoxes of life in rural Northern California.
Drive 15 minutes east, and you find yourself in an upscale neighborhood with a luxe golf course and the country club crowd to accompany it.
Drive 15 minutes north, and you reach the rolling farms of Weed, where, of course, you can buy a t-shirt of Snoop Dogg declaring “I ❤️ Weed (California).”
In between those extremes, there were other polarities more troubling to her. She saw incredible wealth all around her, and yet, tremendous poverty was just a short drive away as well.
“I grew up with both the peace-loving hippies, the really conservative folks, and there’s really nobody in between it seems,” she says.
Despite the paradoxes around her, one constant in her upbringing was education. Her mother was a humanities professor at the College of the Siskiyous, a two-year institution in Weed.
Connelly earned her associates degree from College of the Siskiyous and transferred to Cal Poly Humboldt four hours away.
There was never a question she would go to college. But as she got older, she realized college was a rarity for many of her peers.
Just about 21% of Siskiyou County’s adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree, significantly below California’s 35% average.
Despite two local scholarships available to cover gaps in federal and state aid, a number of her peers were convinced they couldn’t afford college, and chose to pass on even trying.
“For so many years, they had it pounded into their heads that it wasn’t feasible,” Connelly says.
“It’s not a blatant thing. It’s mostly parents just saying they can’t afford to send them to college. It’s an unwritten thing. But it adds barriers.”
Connelly, who now works as an academic mentor to first-generation students, notes that many rural students are the first in their families to go to college. They don’t always know how the system works.
For example, Connelly once congratulated a mentee for needing just a few more courses to graduate with their associate’s degree. Then, she realized the student had thought it was a four-year program.
“If you don’t know, you haven’t seen the college experience explicitly like that, you feel very judged … and maybe too vulnerable to even ask a question about something like that,” she says.
Keeping Up with Community Needs
When Connelly first arrived it was still called Humboldt State. It is now Cal Poly Humboldt: The university become Northern California’s only polytechnic — meaning its curriculum is focused on applied, or experiential, learning — in 2022.
That shift has brought more attention to the college’s beach town of Arcata, as prospective students swarm orientation sessions at the Cal Poly Humboldt campus nestled against the redwood trees, five-plus hours north of both Sacramento and San Francisco.
“I was an orientation leader this past semester, and we had over 1,000 people show up with both sections, like 700 freshmen and 400 transfers,” Connelly says.
“Usually you expect half the people to show up, but you could see there will be, and already is, an influx of students.”
More Rural Higher Ed News
New Vermont State University promises rural development. The merger of three higher education institutions aims to lower tuition for in-state students by 15% while offering flexible in-person and online courses, with a distinct mission to be “a catalyst for rural advancement.”Among its initial rural efforts: a Certificate in 3D Technology and opportunities for local startups to work with its Advanced Manufacturing Center.
Another rural college closure. Presentation College, an Aberdeen, S.D. college founded by Catholic nuns seven decades ago, recently announced it is closing as its enrollment dropped below 600 students. As Higher Ed Dive reports, it joins a number of small, private institutions closing as pandemic relief funding fades and financial realities set in.
More teachers, and more credits. Valdosta State University is using $750,000 in federal funds to address shortages in South Georgia classrooms that are overcrowded and struggling to retain teachers. Meanwhile, Boise State’s “15 to Start” program could help students complete a semester’s worth of credit (and save up to $4,000 in tuition) in three rural Idaho regions that previously struggled to access dual-credit courses.
While the new interest has obvious benefits, it does pose a challenge for the university, which already struggles to house its current 8,000 student population in Arcata and the surrounding coastal towns.
“People say it’s like island-living here,” says Jenn Capps, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Cal Poly Humboldt. “There are only two access points: one road north, one road south. If there’s a bad storm, you can get cut off, and isolated.”
The university has had to play a larger role in the development of community broadband, energy grids, and health care. “If we don’t figure it out, it often doesn’t get figured out,” Capps says.
Chief among the area’s needs is more affordable housing — and it’s one that Cal Poly Humboldt has yet to figure out. Some students are living in their cars, Connelly says, and the university is having to get creative.
“We’re master leasing a hotel, and will likely master a few more,” Capps says.
Last year, California had the highest percentage of residents living in poverty of any state, and saw the highest gas prices in America, as nationwide inflation rose by 6.5%. And Cal Poly Humboldt isn’t alone in struggling to house students — the University of California system has been dealing with the same.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the housing crunch. Tech workers from southern California moved into the area as they worked remotely. And rentals that would have typically gone to students were sold at the height of the market, and many new owners aren’t leasing them out.
The university is using some of its new funding to construct student housing, Capps says, although that process is slated to take years.
The housing challenges come at a time when the university is working to expand programs as part of its new polytechnic mission, including offering software programming courses that had just a 14% acceptance rate at other California institutions.
“We’re saying, ‘Let’s go ahead and offer these programs that people want, that they couldn’t get into elsewhere,” Capps says.
It’s also investing in a fire resiliency center and launching a $10 million health hub for training radiology nurses and other medical professionals.
Though it can’t do everything, Capps is clear that it’s not an option for the university to sit idly on the sidelines in a remote community like this.
“The campus has to be the centerpiece in creating access,” she says.