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 a working-class family in rural Wyoming, Ty McNamee knew that there was little spare money to pursue his dream of going to college.
“Although we have a farm and ranch, it’s a family business and almost any of the money we make goes back into our operating expenses,” he says.
In order to go to college, he and his twin brother both relied on federal aid. That made all the difference for McNamee, who is now a professor studying rurality and social class in higher education at the University of Mississippi.
Despite being more likely to graduate high school than their urban or suburban peers, rural students are the least likely to attend college.
Experts are worried that rural students will become even less likely to get a college degree, due to changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that take effect this fall.
Until now, family farms and small businesses have been exempt from the funding formula that decides how much federal financial aid students are eligible to receive.
However, Congress eliminated the exemption in the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020. Now, the value of a family farm could make it appear on paper like a family can afford to cover more of the cost of college — decreasing the amount in aid they will receive.
Last year, the average family with a small business or farm was expected to contribute up to $7,626 — however, starting this fall they would be expected to cover $41,056 under the new formula, according to a study from the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is expected to introduce a bill this week to restore the exemption. She and three other senators released a statement in March “raising the alarm” about how families could be negatively affected.
“These farm families, whose businesses are vital to our states’ communities and economies, need tailored guidance to respond to their unique business model,” the bipartisan group wrote in the letter addressed to the Department of Education. (Ernst was joined by fellow Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley , Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
(And in case you’re curious, there are about 2.1 million family farms in the U.S., though not every one would necessarily be affected by the FAFSA change.)
It remains to be seen whether the bill will move forward in Congress. But without it, the new requirements will compound the difficulties rural students already have when pursuing higher education, potentially adding to the enrollment challenges colleges are already facing.
“You can’t sell tractors” to to pay for college.
That’s a special concern to Frank Ballman, federal relations director for the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs. The association has lobbied for keeping the family farm and small business exemption.
Ballman’s father grew up on a farm in Kentucky, and was the first and only of his 13 siblings to attend college, thanks to federal funds awarded through the GI bill. Decades later, Ballman can see the impact with many of his rural Kentucky relatives — and their kids — skipping college altogether.
“If you exclude this generation of farm kids from college, you really create an almost certain tidal wave of future students who lose that tradition of attending,”Ballman says.
More Rural Higher Ed News
Are online colleges worth buying? Rick Seltzer of the Chronicle of Higher Education asks the question, and it’s worth pondering as Arkansas moves toward acquiring the for-profit University of Phoenix. Other rural state university systems could follow suit, using scarce funds to acquire these colleges in the hopes of increasing profits and expanding reach.
Exploring the STARS network. Last newsletter, we noted USC was joining the partnership of 16 universities expanding their rural pipelines. This USA Today piece is a more in-depth exploration of the $20 million program and its billionaire funder Byron Trott, the head of the merchant bank BDT Capital Partners.
- Worth watching: Studies on rural student outreach are scarce, so the fact that STARS Network colleges will have to track student engagement, enrollment, and rural-specific programming could lead to more valuable data for rural researchers down the line.
In Germany, a new university targets rural doctors. The first publicly run medical university in Brandenburg will open in 2026 with aims to be “a model for medical care in rural areas.” However, experts are already saying the $2 billion euro project is unlikely to make a dent in the nation’s rural doctor deficit, according to this piece by the British magazine Times Higher Education.
Family farms may have a high net worth on paper but can’t actually sell their farm land or equipment to pay for college.
“If you’re an investor and you have stock, you can sell some of that stock,” says Ritchie Morrow, who works as a financial aid officer for the Nebraska state agency responsible for disbursing state education grants. “If you’re a family farmer, you can’t sell an auger, because you need it to move the corn. You can’t sell a tractor.”
Some argue the change just makes everything more complicated, as the new supposedly simpler FAFSA will require families to quantify the value of things like crops and land on top of other assets. And those vagaries are worsened by the fact that the Department of Education has already said it won’t be issuing instructions on how to calculate their value accurately.
A mistake could prove more than just costly: When families fill out the FAFSA, they are required to sign a statement certifying that they aren’t providing false information.
“What that says to a business owner is ‘Be prepared to go to jail or face a hefty fine,’” Ballmann says.
Ensuring rural students can go to college really matters. Many attend two- or -four year programs with the intention of learning the latest farming innovations and returning to their communities.
That was the case for Luke Carlson, a Nebraska farmer in his forties who left to attend Northwest Missouri State but knew he would return.
Luke has long worked alongside his stereotype-defying father Jim, who voted for former President Donald Trump but is known to quote Al Gore about climate change. (He was protesting the Keystone Pipeline when we first met a few years back, and had recently erected a 2.8-kilowatt solar panel over farmland drillers had tried to seize).
Their family has farmed in Nebraska for over a century, as Luke recently recounted in an article published by Central Valley Ag, a farmer-owned cooperative he serves on the board of.
He and his wife, Sherri, hope their three kids will have the same choices they did — whether it’s pursuing a university education, running the farm, or both.
But as family farms like theirs increasingly die out, are absorbed by corporations, or otherwise struggle to make ends meet their options could be dwindling.
This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.