EMPORIA, Kan. — When Adia Witherspoon was growing up in the south-central Kansas town of El Dorado, her single mother told her that “the only way to get away from poverty or El Dorado was to go to college.”
There was a community college near where she lived, but there were no public universities, or even private ones, close by — and if there had been a private college, she said, she likely wouldn’t have been able to afford it.
So Witherspoon enrolled about 60 miles up Interstate 35 at public Emporia State University, picked a major in earth science and started studying computer coding.
“Coming here there are so many things I’ve learned about the world that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned,” she said. “I mean, I didn’t know I could become a coder.”
Then the university announced that, because of budget and enrollment problems, it was canceling her program and cutting, merging or downgrading programs and majors in English, physics, history, political science, chemistry, a dual-degree program in engineering and science mathematics, all language courses except Spanish and minors in French, German, journalism and geography.
“If I was still a high school senior,” said Witherspoon, who is scheduled to graduate in the spring, “I wouldn’t come here.”
Rural young people who aspire to a higher education have long had fewer choices than their urban and suburban counterparts, contributing to far lower rates of college-going. Now many of the universities that serve them are eliminating large numbers of programs and majors.
That means the already limited number of options available to rural students are being squeezed still further, forcing them to travel even greater distances to college than they already do or give up on it altogether.
“This is just the next in a long line of issues where rural folks are told by people who are not rural what they’re going to have and not have, and that they should feel lucky to have anything,” said Andrew Koricich, an associate professor of higher education at Appalachian State University and executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.
Administrators say they’re responding to consumer demand by putting a priority on majors they say lead directly to jobs.
The University of Alaska system has scaled back more than 40 academic programs, including earth sciences, geography and environmental resources, sociology, hospitality administration and theater. Missouri Western State University eliminated majors, minors and concentrations in English, history, philosophy, sociology, political science, art and other subjects. Eastern Kentucky University shut down theater, economics and other majors.
Spending on higher education fell in 16 of the 20 most rural states between 2008 and 2018, when adjusted for inflation.
Henderson State University in Arkansas in May dropped 25 degree programs in disciplines including geography, history, political science, public administration, criminal justice, biology, studio art, communication, theater arts, English and Spanish.
Several states are merging universities, many of which serve rural students. Pennsylvania has combined three universities in western and three in northeastern Pennsylvania, consolidating programs and majors into a mix of remote and in-person classes. Three universities in Vermont are also being merged, with some courses transformed into a combination of in-person and remote.
North Dakota State University officials warned in October that budget and enrollment shortfalls will require cuts that could affect its “core university mission.” Iowa State University in the spring began a planning process that could end with programs consolidated or eliminated. And the University of Kansas — the state’s flagship — in February announced plans to end 42 academic programs. (Asked repeatedly about the status of this, the university did not respond.)
“Think about whether people in urban and suburban areas would put up with” cuts like those, Koricich said. “Rural folks aren’t any less deserving of a range of education choices just because they live in a rural place.”
Sonja Ardoin, an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Clemson University, likened it to a buffet in which urban and suburban students get to choose from 30 items and rural ones from three.
“It’s saying to us that they don’t value us, that our towns are doomed to be train stops,” said Sean Singer, another Emporia State student, who is majoring in history and political science — both of which are being cut. “We’re just like lost causes if we’re from small towns.”
The universities point to huge funding shortfalls and steadily dwindling enrollment as among the reasons they’ve been forced to take dramatic action.
Almost all face multimillion-dollar deficits. Emporia State projects a budget gap of $5.6 million this academic year, a spokesperson said, even after cutting almost $9 million in the last five years. Henderson State reports a $78 million deficit; North Dakota State, $10.5 million over the next two years; and Iowa State, $11.4 million and climbing. Eastern Kentucky says it needs to recoup $25 million in recurring costs. The Vermont College System was losing $8 million to $12 million a year.
That’s in part because fewer tuition-paying students are coming. Enrollment at Emporia State is down by 7 percent in the last five years (and, if online students aren’t counted, by 29 percent, according to the university); at Eastern Kentucky, by 17 percent in the four years ending last year; at North Dakota State, by 15 percent; and at the public universities being merged in Pennsylvania, by 23 percent.
Many rural states have also steadily reduced their higher education funding. Spending on higher education fell in 16 of the 20 most rural states between 2008 and 2018, when adjusted for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Higher education funding per student declined by more than 30 percent in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. In Kansas, it went down by nearly 23 percent. Recent cuts in Alaska followed an agreement between the governor and the public universities to slash spending by $70 million over three years.
In deciding what to cut and what to keep, officials at the universities said they’re responding to public demand. A disproportionate number of humanities and science programs are being dropped.
“None of the majors we stopped doing were bad majors,” said Brent Thomas, recently promoted to provost at Emporia State. “But when you look at the trends in enrollment, the decision is being made for us by our students. Getting a job has always been an important factor, and with every passing year that ranks higher on their list.”
With rural households earning what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates is 20 to 25 percent less than urban ones, “it’s a struggle for many of our students to afford” tuition, Thomas said. He was speaking beside a lake across the interstate from the main campus, on the deck of a new aquatic center that will be used in part to train students who may go on to work for the state Department of Wildlife and Parks; the university will also focus on programs including nursing and teacher education.
“They don’t have the luxury of coming here to do something that’s not going to pay off for them or their families,” said Thomas. “They do have to worry about what comes next.”
Henderson State has said that it will emphasize “community-based needs and 21st-century durable skills,” and North Dakota State says that it will focus on filling workforce needs.
That assumes employers don’t want humanities graduates, said Megan Hickerson, who teaches history at Henderson State — one of the programs being cut at the end of this academic year — “and that’s just not true. Humanities graduates have critical thinking, communication skills and a lot of other things that are important in the workforce.”
Subjects such as history teach about the past as a lens into the present, she said. “If they don’t get that at a university, they’re never going to get it.”
A university shouldn’t be like a trade school, said Christopher Lovett, who teaches history at Emporia State and who, like Hickerson, will be out of a job at the end of next semester. Administrators, Lovett said, “think education is like making widgets. Our job is to make a student a well-rounded individual prepared to face the real world.”
Many faculty see polarized politics at work. “Classism,” Hickerson called it. “It pretends to be about making the world a better place for all these poor, disadvantaged students, but it’s really just the opposite,” she said.
“A lot of this comes down to who speaks for rural students,” said Dan Colson, an Emporia State professor of English whose job has also been eliminated. “You have people who are marginalized, who have much less voice than urban and suburban students, and the right wing is filling that void and saying, ‘We know what you need.’ ”
The rural colleges “are taking the brunt of it because of the influence of rural politicians, and especially extreme politicians who are advancing an idea that education is a threat,” said Max McCoy, who teaches journalism at Emporia State — another program being cut.
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Rural students are already much less likely to go to college than urban or suburban ones. Twenty-one percent of rural Americans have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 35 percent who live in urban places, a gap of 14 percentage points that has widened from 5 percentage points in 1970, according to the Federal Reserve.
Those rural high school graduates who do go to college prefer to stay close to home, an abundance of research has shown. That already limits their choices. About 13 million people live in higher education “deserts,” mostly in the Midwest and Great Plains, where the nearest university is beyond a reasonable commute away, the American Council on Education reports.
“In a lot of ways your geography is a bigger factor in terms of what you can really access in higher education than even price,” said Joe Thiel, director of academic policy and research for the Montana University System.
Students from remote places also feel more comfortable at rural universities that are usually smaller than sprawling flagship schools, said Brenda Koerner, who teaches biology at Emporia State and will also be laid off after next semester.
“The types of students we get here are students who would probably not succeed at a large institution like KU or K-State,” Koerner said, referring to the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, which have enrollments of 28,000 and 20,000, respectively. “They need those small class sizes. They need to be seen. They don’t have the confidence to be at a large institution. They feel more comfortable with us.”
Having a university nearby not only encourages local college-going; it also boosts high school graduation rates, employment, household income and other things that contribute to the economy, scholars at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have found.
“Universities and colleges in rural places play a disproportionate role [in them], and I’m not sure they’re always aware they play that role,” said Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center on Rural Innovation.
In Emporia, for instance, one Emporia State grad created a company called Dynamic Discs; it makes flying discs for disc golf, has grown to employ nearly 50 people in its 20,000-square-foot headquarters and has put the city on the map with an annual disc golf tournament the local tourism agency says attracts about 2,000 people.
That kind of outcome will be less likely as the university eliminates so many majors, said Susan Brinkman, a fifth-generation Kansan and another Emporia State graduate, who got her degree in art and now serves as a city commissioner.
Young people lose out on “not just the major they always dreamed of, but all the majors they never knew existed,” said Brinkman, sitting in the country line-dancing club she owns called Bourbon Cowboy, where mismatched wooden chairs and tables surround a bar that’s flanked by pool tables under low-hanging lamps and a stage backed by the outline of a cowboy hat.
Many will leave to study somewhere else, she said, and “they’re not coming back when they graduate.” For rural students who decide not to go away to college, Brinkman said, “their access just continues to dwindle — their access to education, their access to health care, their access to the justice system.”
Named for the Greek and Latin words for “trading place,” Emporia was once a busy railroad and cattle hub. Just under 24,000 people live there now, many of whom work in the Tyson Foods beef-packing or Simmons Pet Food plants or at the Hostess Brands bakery. Train horns sound all day.
Brinkman’s club, in a onetime JCPenney store that sat vacant for 15 years, shares Commercial Street with a diner, the local drug store and, prominent at the head of the street, the university.
Now, she said, if Emporia State “becomes more of a training university, we are less as a community. We’re just a manufacturing town.”
Leaders of the higher education institutions in many of these rural places say they’re trying to preserve and even expand choice, mostly by creating majors that rural students can take fully or partly online — including many that were never available on their local campuses.
“It allows one of those schools, which might on its own have had 20 or 30 majors or areas of studies, to offer 100,” said Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which is leaning on this model.
In a survey of current and prospective Pennsylvania students, most said they preferred in-person classes, but nine out of 10 said they were willing to take some courses online if that meant having access to more majors.
Advocates for rural students are critical of this trend — most notably Koricich, who called it “cover” for deep program cuts. Another problem: Nearly one in five people in rural places don’t have access to high-speed internet, compared to about 1 percent in cities, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
But Thomas, the Emporia State provost, said, “We can’t afford to be all things to all people. In a perfect world the state’s investment in higher education would be similar to what it was 30 years ago, and it’s not. I would love to be able to offer that full array we offered in the past. But there’s just a reality we have to face. And I would rather have a viable institution than no institution at all.”
Singer, at Emporia State, is on track to graduate in the spring, just before the subjects he is studying are phased out. He hopes to go into law or public administration. A lot of other students “are bailing out for Colorado or Illinois,” he said.
“There’s kind of this culture of apathy, especially where young people congregate,” said Singer. “They pretty much think the places where we live are already kind of a lost cause.”
Correction: An early version of this story had an incorrect state for the location of Henderson State University.
This story about rural college-going was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.