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.

It’s surprisingly quiet in Susanville.

The whistle from the sawmill used to fill the alpine air each day at noon. Its absence is still strange to Codi Mortell, even though she was a high school senior when it last blew two decades ago.

She isn’t the only one still thinking about that whistle in Susanville, California, a former mining town, former farming town, former timber town. Soon, it will become a former prison town too, now that its largest prison and employer is slated to close in June.

Mortell is an administrative assistant at Lassen Community College, which has been tasked for nearly a century with helping figure out what comes after all of those formers. Only, there are no easy answers for a community in need of constant reinvention. 

The college restarted its once-shuttered nursing program in 2016, hoping to not just recruit locals, but also students from other parts of California where some nursing programs have years-long wait lists.

However, attracting qualified instructors is challenging, since California nurses can make much more working in medical settings. Student applications to its once-full, 30-person LPN program dipped during the pandemic, even as rural nursing programs have surged across America.

A woman stands in a hospital room near a mannequin hospital patient that is laying in a hospital bed
During the pandemic, Christy Myers and her nursing students turned Lassen College into a community field office (Nick Fouriezos).

The college’s nursing director Christy Myers is seeing demand pick up again, though. She hopes to add an RN program if she can recruit instructors with master’s degrees and recent work experience to meet California requirements. 

Lassen College has grown its firefighting courses, another in-demand field as wildfires have ripped through northern California. 

Hundreds of inmates from across the state, including dozens of local ones, were trained each year by the college at Antelope Conservation Camp #25 in nearby High Desert State Prison.

a man stands in front of a tree between two buildings
Carlos Romo is a firefighter studying fire sciences at Lassen Community College after having earned his associates degree while incarcerated at the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville (Nick Fouriezos).

Those incarcerated students have slowed to a trickle, though, with the pending closure of the California Correctional Center and California’s push to replace inmate hand crews with civilian ones

“We now see 10-15 inmate students, and we used to get 40 to 50 per week,” says Dan Weaver, director of the Fire Technology Program. 

Lassen hopes to attract local residents by offering bite-sized, week-long certification courses, in addition to full degree programs, which are tougher sells to recent high-school graduates who want to quickly start making money.

Still, as fire grows, it also consumes. Susanville saw last year’s near million-acre Dixie Fire devour the already-struggling timber industry, burning about 60% of the acreage fueling the sawmill in nearby Chester.

The warmer months in lake country, once prime tourism season given Lassen’s harsh winters, are now miserably hot and smoky, Mortell says: “We’re a very cranky town in the summer.”

Yet there is some opportunity from the ashes. Lassen College is looking into adding a lineman program, another growing field as northern California rebuilds its utility poles and other infrastructure. 

“We have locals who have gone all the way to Florida to be trained for that. If we could offer that locally … we know it could be huge for our community,” says Michell Williams, the interim dean of instruction. 

Alone, none of those efforts will replace the impact of losing the prison, which employs more than 1,000 people in the area.

However, as Lassen County reconsiders itself, its community college is playing a central role in the conversation about what’s next.

More Rural Higher Ed News

Colleges weigh new admissions strategies. In the Wall Street Journal, Marco Dinovelli of Rutgers University talks about using the College Board’s Landscape tool to understand if rural students may have completed fewer AP classes because their school didn’t offer as many. It’s just one example of how admissions officers can get creative when assessing rural students.

CHIPS Act could boost rural research. The White House is highlighting how the CHIPS and Science Act signed on Tuesday will “expand the geographic and institutional diversity of research institutions,” including rural ones. That’s because the law will allow the National Science Foundation to increase its percentage of funds that go to emerging research institutions, many of which are in rural areas.

Virginia experiments with lab schools. The state passed a law this year that paved the way for public schools run by colleges. Lab schools could level the playing field for rural students with expanded resources and increased awareness of post-secondary opportunities, David Matlock of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center told The Center Square.

Communities Shift with Their Colleges

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of community colleges in changing times, and how dire situations sometimes bring that purpose into focus.

When the pandemic hit, the Lassen nursing program formed a community field office and call-in center for students to answer residents’ questions and concerns. 

When Susanville’s hills were ablaze, the Lassen campus became an evacuation camp for those displaced by the Dixie Fire being fought by Lassen-trained firefighters.

Community colleges play a role wherever they are. 

But in rural places like this, where the nearest four-year universities are hours away, they play an outsized role in both the education and the civic life of their community.

How they choose to embrace that role will be important as they grapple with new political realities.

Rural community colleges face difficult choices about whether to provide the abortion pill to students who may not have anywhere else to get it after the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade.

Offering it will be illegal in some states, and, in others, legally gray in a way that colleges won’t want to touch. But even in states with abortion rights protections, colleges will have to consider whether they have sufficient mental health resources and other necessary support services.

Even More Rural Higher Ed News

Wyoming’s science experiment. Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., is piloting an $8M collaboration with other universities and state community colleges to direct more rural students to science careers.

Feds release $198M in relief funds. The federal grants were the final installment of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund dollars, with 90 percent of that money going to HBCUs, low-income and minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and rural institutions.

North Carolina’s apprenticeship boost. The Department of Labor awarded a $4M grant to boost North Carolina’s apprenticeship program, which has doubled since the state’s community college system took over the program in 2017.

California will require public universities to offer abortion pills by January, but the new law exempts its community colleges. 

Those colleges enroll nearly twice as many students as the state’s universities, with one study estimating community college students in California sought around 1,000 medication abortions per month.

Abortion providers, fire fighters… these are just some of the increasingly shifting roles that community colleges are asked to play.

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.