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.

Last week, Open Campus and USA Today published a tale of two rural Teton Counties — one in Idaho, another in Wyoming — separated by a treacherous mountain pass and a staggering economic divide.

No county in America has an average per-capita income that comes close to Teton County, Wyoming — it’s $318,297, far more than the roughly $35,000 that’s the average in Teton County, Idaho.

I encourage you to read the piece, which deals with a number of issues being felt across rural America, from how educational institutions and state governments are trying to address workforce gaps to deepening concerns about affordable housing.

Here are three extra takeaways from my reporting.

a neon sign that says welcome to the million dollar cowboy bar hangs on a western-style main street building at dusk
Wealthy patrons sip beers in saddles at this bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos)

When making choices about rural areas, go where the people go

Nationwide, education leaders are trying to figure out how to better serve their students, work that has seemingly become more focused on reaching rural communities over the last decade.

A recent spate of educational and workforce initiatives offer some promise, from Louisiana creating a database to match its residents to in-demand jobs to Kansas expanding apprenticeship grant funding. In April, the Idaho legislature created an $80 million annual fund to give high school graduates up to $8,000 to attend community college or receive workforce training.

These efforts could help rural students learn more and get better jobs. However, they must be informed by the perspectives of the people who are likely to be representative of those students.

Earlier this year, the College of Eastern Idaho teamed up with the nonprofit Education Design Lab, which has worked with a number of states and organizations now to design, test, and scale rural postsecondary programs.

The college wanted to get feedback from residents of Driggs, a mostly working-class rural town in Teton County, Idaho, which is quickly seeing its own costs rise as people move there while leaving behind its neighboring counterpart in Wyoming.

To start, the education nonprofit and the college conducted interviews at the local farmer’s market … but after spending more time talking to educators in the area, they realized that anybody who could afford to be buying fresh veggies at 2 p.m. on a Thursday probably wasn’t their target demographic.

They shifted gears, doing their next round of interviews while handing out gift cards at the Broulim’s grocery store, a popular lunch haunt for construction and service workers in the Driggs area.

However, that moment was a good reminder: If you really want to hear from rural America, don’t rely on outliers of the rural experience.

Amid shifting costs, rural communities are feeling pressure to change

I wasn’t able to fit my conversation with her into the article, but one of my more telling interviews was with Virginia Powell Symons, director of the Teton Valley Balloon Rally, an annual hot air balloon festival held each summer. (Yes, I did get to go up one day!)

Powell Symons initially moved to Jackson Hole in Teton County, Wyoming because of her love for the tight-knit mountain community and the region’s natural beauty. The owner of an events planning company, she spent years specializing in boutique weddings catering to the multimillionaire crowd before switching to nonprofit and community organizing.

a selfie of a white man wearing a bright red jacket while riding on a hot air balloon
Nick Fouriezos at te Teton Valley balloon festival during his reporting trip to Wyoming and Idaho. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos)

“The work is way harder, and pays less, but it helps me feel like I am working to maintain this feeling of community that we’re starting to lose.”

Scores of CEOs, executives, and investors have moved to Teton County, Wyoming over the past few decades, motivated in part by its beautiful scenery and equally attractive tax climate – Wyoming has no personal or corporate income tax, and one of the nation’s lowest sales tax rates at 4 percent.

That trend has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which made working remotely more palatable for ultra-rich finance and tech execs looking for an escape from crowded New York City and San Francisco.

“There has just been this explosion of not just wealth, but extravagant, extreme, ridiculous, wealth,” she told me. “I mean, you hear them say the billionaires are running out the millionaires, but it’s seriously true.”

Almost every year, Powell Symons says she gets approached by the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce to bring the Teton Valley Balloon Rally from Idaho over to the Wyoming side. Even though the offer has become more tempting as the region’s disparities deepen, she has resisted so far.

It would be a worse ballooning experience: the winds are better here, and pilots would have to mostly stay tethered because Wyoming landowners don’t want them landing on their private property.

But even more importantly to Powell Symons, it would also end a four-decade tradition here in Driggs, one that draws Idahoans from all over the state each year. And having had the chance to share their love for those balloons personally, that would be a tragedy.

Higher ed can’t attract students who don’t feel like they have choices

The story begins, and ends, on Alexis Luna, a 20-year-old trying to make ends meet as best as she can. There was something striking about seeing her at the festival, looking up at the balloons as her three nephews scrambled over each other on the bed of her pickup truck.

From the piece:

“They are watching the hot air balloons rise from the parking lot of the Super 8 here, where Luna spends her weekends working the front desk. Most weekdays, she commutes an hour to work at the Target in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, taking the bus lately because her truck has started breaking down from the winding, mountainous drive across the Teton Pass …

For a time, Luna dreamed of going to cosmetology school. Then she could work at a salon, doing the face masks and other lux cleansing rituals people in Jackson are willing to pay so much more money for than in Driggs.

More Rural Higher Ed News

Ahead of a presidential election year, how do rural voters feel? In this episode of “Everywhere Radio,” veteran pollster Celinda Lake talked with Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis about the findings from a soon-to-be released poll that asks rural voters about their values and views of the future.

Lessons from rural schools. Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, executive director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, recently wrote about what she discovered while visiting the University of Wyoming and Eastern Oregon University, two recipients of the organization’s Catalyst Initiative Fund.

Obstacles, and opportunities, in rural colleges. At North Carolina’s State Board of Community Colleges retreat hosted by Wayne Community College in September, president Patty Pfeiffer shared the story of her own education journey — a conversation that came as colleges also discussed significant rural challenges, including budgets strained by population decline.

Now those plans seem far off. She has to make payments on the truck and to fix its transmission. She has to pay her share of rent on the mobile home she shares with her uncle and her grandma, who is now 82 and needs just as much help as ever.”

These are the types of decisions many rural students face across the country. It’s not just whether a degree will pay off four years from now, or over a lifetime.

It’s more often about whether they can get by today. Not just for themselves, but for those who rely upon them.

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.