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.

“In general, I think college is a scam,” said Trinaty Ann Renee, a 28-year-old who I interviewed earlier this year in Visalia, a city known for being a stone’s throw from some giant Sequoias.

“I don’t mean to shame anybody who decides a four-year university is for them, it’s just not for me,” said Renee, who specializes in prohibition-style cocktails and hopes to open her own bar someday. “I’m going to be a career bartender.”

She was brewing magic that May night. While the higher ed enterprise is off-putting to her, Renee is attending college. She has been for years, taking classes at the local community college. “I do love knowledge, and I love learning new things,” she said between pours.

As a parent to a young daughter, named Hecate after the Greek goddess of witchcraft, Renee qualified for what she called a “shit ton” of financial aid — $8000 to attend classes at College of the Sequoias.

She has stayed three credits short of graduation to keep the learning (and funding) going: “This next semester, I’m thinking about taking sewing.”

A white woman with blunt black bangs pours a shot of alcohol in a bar
Trinaty Ann Renee pours a drink during her shift at a local bar (Salgu Wissmath).

At the heart of Renee’s skeptical views on college is what people in many rural areas see as the education industrial complex, which leaves their loved ones with questionable returns.

“My sister just graduated from Los Angeles-Pacific University. She worked very hard for it. But it costs so much money. She had a great experience … and she’s going to be in debt her entire life.”

Of course, for many, a four-year degree may still be very much worth it — despite growing skepticism. Those with a diploma make nearly a million more over a lifetime, for example

But a lifetime is, well, a lifetime. And without ever stepping foot on campus, it’s never been easier for someone who wants to earn something and learn something now — to be mixing up specialty cocktails in the rural Central Valley, citing Greek goddesses you discovered from reading your favorite webcomic.

Earlier this year, I went to the Central Valley of California knowing that it was home to four of the state’s six counties where fewer than 15 percent of adults over 25 have a four-year degree.

However, I came away with the belief that people here aren’t any less interested in education. That reality may not show up in statistics on degree attainment, but it shows up in the way they live their lives. 

I’ll take you through more of their stories today, and you can read the direct accounts of 10 folks in rural California about their relationship with higher education on Open Campus.

Facing Educational Obstacles

Something that is often missed in conversations about whether a degree is worth it or not, are the shades of gray. Everybody’s experience is different, and a four-year degree might not be what they need to get where they want. And for some of the Californians I talked to it simply felt unattainable.

It can feel difficult to “get out” of a rural hometown and go to college, said Gemini Lopez and Michael Dinkins, former high school football teammates at Le Grand High School, who now play together at Merced College an hour away.

two boys sit against a truck bed in a school parking lot
Gemini Lopez and Michael Dinkins (Nick Fouriezos).

More Rural Higher Ed News

Can city dwellers applying to college take rural spots? In this piece exploring how Ivy League schools are trying to recruit more rural students, Christopher Rim — CEO of Command Education, a NYC college admissions consulting — posits that urbanites may be considered rural students on college apps if they attend rural boarding schools. All because of flaws in the NCES system.

How Early Colleges can open doors for rural students. Jay Mathews, in an education column for the Washington Post, writes about his reflections from reading “Early Colleges as a Model for Schooling: Creating New Pathways for Access to Higher Education.” First-gen and low-income saw significant benefits, including Gaudalupe, a rural student who was able to get an associate’s degree with just one year of extra high school and entered UNC-Chapel Hill as a double major on a pre-med track.

“If you have money, you can. But otherwise, it’s tough,” Dinkins said. “Most kids in Le Grand, their families have small businesses, so they work in agriculture, or have farms that they go and work in straight out of school.”

It can also be difficult to choose college in the hopes of making more money later,when you could be making money now. “Finding a healthy balance between work and school is hard,” said Omar Banuelos, an American Sign Language major whose classes end around 2 pm.

That left him just a few hours before his 4 pm shift at Taco Johns, where his manager said he’s due up for a promotion. And he was considering dropping out to work even more, even though the 19-year-old already has scoliosis and back pain from falling off a ladder at a warehouse job.

“I used to like vinyl wrapping cars. That shit was hella cool,” Banuelos said. “I just like making money. I don’t like being bored. I’ll be sore for a good week, or two, or three. All that work is worth it in the end though.”

Jeremiah Storment, a drummer from Kings County, dropped out the first time he attended community college as an 18-year-old. His grades were good, but classes bored him. 

Now in his early twenties, Storment re-enrolled to learn more music theory and improve his skill as a drummer. He joined the jazz band despite knowing very little about it beforehand. “I knew jazz musicians are ‘Big Brain,’ so i just threw myself [in].”

He doesn’t plan on transferring to a university, partly because of the cost. He sees value in his community college experience. “You can learn things from classes, but you can also just take things from being there.”

For Margaret Salas, a 68-year-old who earned her bachelor’s degree in business from CSU-Stanislaus nearly four decades after graduating high school, finally getting that degree brought a major sense of accomplishment.

She now works in a counseling office at Merced College. The degree was worth it, Salas says, but she regrets never getting to really use her new business education.

“We had a home, my husband had a job as a custodian established here, it was hard for me to move to where the jobs were,” she says.

a middle aged woman with black hair and a grey polo stands against a wall
Margaret Salas (Salgu Wissmath).

Others would have liked to attend a university, but faced steep obstacles. 

Jo Cook originally attended community college to study nursing because that’s what her parents wanted, working two jobs to pay the bills as her mental health suffered. She recently switched her major to art, with hopes of becoming a teacher. 

While she dreamed of transferring to Chico State to get her bachelor’s degree, the moving and living costs had her leaning toward getting a teaching credential at the local Fresno State satellite campus instead.

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.