BUCKSPORT, Maine — Its roof frosted with a covering of the previous night’s snow, a yellow school bus chugs up to the front door of Bucksport High School, where Principal Josh Tripp greets the handful of late-arriving students as they drag themselves inside.
Tripp is just glad they’ve shown up, in a year when school is half online, sports and clubs have been curtailed and the world can seem as cold and gray as a winter morning in this sparsely populated coastal town.
“Their overall feeling toward education right now is that they’ve just been beaten down,” Tripp said. “Everything about this year has been harder. Certainly being an election year and seeing so much negativity around forecasts of our future, regardless of what political side you’re on — there’s just a lot of dim and dreary outlooks.”
In rural communities like this one, the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic year is translating into more than teenage angst.
The number of rural students filling out the federal application for financial aid, an early sign of whether they’re even considering going to college, has plummeted by more than 18 percent.
It’s driving a dramatic drop in the proportion of students going on to college, threatening the already precarious economies of rural areas and widening their socioeconomic drift from urban and suburban America.
Universities and colleges that serve rural areas saw deep declines in the number of first-time students who showed up this fall. And early indications suggest an even smaller proportion of rural high school seniors are preparing to enroll next year.
The number of rural students filling out the federal application for financial aid, a sign of whether they’re even considering going to college, has plummeted by more than 18 percent, the National College Attainment Network reports. That’s worse than the also alarming nearly 16 percent drop among urban students. The numbers are down even more in largely rural states including West Virginia (32 percent), Louisiana (30 percent), Mississippi (26 percent), Alaska (24 percent) and Arkansas and Oklahoma (23 percent).
Many universities and colleges in rural places already have seen big drops in enrollment this year. In Idaho, for instance, which already has the lowest proportion in the country of high school graduates who go on to college (tied with Alaska at 44 percent), first-time undergraduate enrollment fell nearly 4 percent at the University of Idaho, nearly 8 percent at Idaho State University and more than 5 percent at Boise State University — with an even bigger slide among first-time in-state undergrads.
Those figures include huge declines among dual-enrollment students, who get a head start by taking college classes while they’re still in high school, suggesting that future numbers may be even worse.
“One of my greatest fears is that they won’t come back,” Kevin Boys, president of Southern State Community College, said of the many students who have opted to forgo college in his service area of rural southwestern Ohio. Enrollment at the school dropped 16 percent this semester, a spokeswoman said.
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At the flagship campus of the University of Maine, the number of entering in-state students was down 11 percent this fall, a spokeswoman said. The state was already behind its goal of getting 66 percent of high school graduates to go to college; the number is stuck at 61 percent, lower than it was in 2013. Maine is the nation’s most rural state, with more than 60 percent of its population considered rural.
Only one in five people over age 25 in rural places nationwide has a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to one in three in urban areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which tracks this.
Until this year, there were indications that rural college-going was increasing. The proportion of rural students going to college rose from 51 percent in 2011 to 61 percent in 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, though it has stalled since then. That’s the same proportion as urban students, if still fewer than the 67 percent of suburban high school graduates who go to college.
Now there’s worry that this progress may reverse, thanks in large part to Covid-19.
The rural students most likely to continue on to college are the ones who enjoy high school, participate in extracurricular activities and get good grades, according to a just-completed survey by researchers at universities in Maine, Oregon, Georgia and Alaska.
“Think about what’s happening in the pandemic,” said Jessica Leahy, a University of Maine professor of forestry and one of the researchers who conducted the survey, which was released in September. “You’re having to do school remotely, so that can lower your school perceptions. You don’t have those extracurricular activities. Your grades may be lower.”
By far the biggest single barrier to college-going among students in rural schools, however, is the price, the survey found; average household earnings in rural areas are nearly 20 percent lower than incomes elsewhere, the USDA says. That has also gotten worse as a result of the pandemic, which has shuttered businesses and cost jobs in rural communities already suffering from declines in agriculture and industry.
“In a time of difficult socioeconomic circumstance, it’s harder for young people to work for a future goal when the current situation is so challenging for their families,” said Chuck Fluharty, founder and former president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, based at the University of Iowa.
In Bucksport, near the mouth of the Penobscot River, the paper mill that was the town’s biggest employer closed abruptly just before Christmas in 2014 as the market for the newsprint it produced collapsed, taking more than 500 jobs with it.
In its more affluent period, Bucksport was a model for Collinsport, the fictional seaside setting of the Dark Shadows films and television series. Today, what’s left of the idle mill and its lone remaining smokestack loom over one end of Main Street, waiting to be redeveloped into a promised salmon farm.
“Families worked at the mill, they made really good wages and that was their career,” Tripp said, wearing a facemask imprinted with the high school’s Golden Bucks logo. “When you could go make $45,000 a year right out of high school working at the mill, there wasn’t that push to say you need to go spend $100,000 on a college education to do the same exact thing.”
Then, he said, “cold turkey, [people] completely didn’t have that choice. You’ve seen that happen in a number of different communities across the state. And those towns really haven’t rebounded.”
Thirty-seven percent of the students at Bucksport High School come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, state figures show. “So a number of our students don’t even feel like [college] is an option for them,” Tripp said.
Related: A big reason rural students never go to college: Colleges don’t recruit them
Meanwhile, the prospect of having to pay for college only to remain online has fueled resistance among students who dislike the experience of remote education.
Even with prospects that a vaccine will allow colleges to return to being fully in person, Ethan Lozier, a Bucksport High School senior, hears his classmates asking, “Why do I want to go and have online classes like this and spend thousands of dollars?” Lozier said he’s been wondering the same thing, although he plans to go to college next year.
It’s not an abstract concern. After classes went remote in the spring, Tripp said seniors told him, “ ‘I don’t want to do that again, so I’m going to take a year off.’ And we know, unfortunately, the data does not trend well for those kids” ever to resume their educations.
Some rural students have stopped even coming to school. In Maine, more than 4 percent, or nearly 8,000, have disappeared this year from the public schools, state figures show.
Katy Hunter, a science teacher and college adviser at Bucksport High, grew close last year to a student with whom she ate lunch every day. Now the student isn’t showing up at all. “It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve tried to contact home,” said Hunter. “It’s sad and frustrating because you feel helpless. You know that this person is very capable, and a good person. I don’t think they realize what this is going to do to their futures.”
“Living in Maine is tough. Living through a Maine winter is even more difficult. Living through a Maine winter with Covid is crazy.”
Kandi Martin, college counselor, Foxcroft Academy, Dover-Foxcroft, Maine
Even when students do attend online or in-person classes, there’s less opportunity to coach them and their parents through the complex college application process. “The biggest challenge is tracking down the seniors,” Hunter said. “They don’t always check and respond to emails as a high school kid.”
Sixty miles away, in the inland northern Maine community of Dover-Foxcroft, Amber Richard said of her classmates that “their drive is just gone. The quarantine kind of just drained them and now they’re, like, ‘Well, I don’t really want to now just go be in [college].’ … They just want a break.”
Dover-Foxcroft spans the Piscataquis River, which once powered sawmills, tanneries, woolen companies, a piano factory and furniture makers; originally two separate towns, which merged in 1922, it’s the seat of Piscataquis County, Maine’s poorest and least populated county, which is three times the size of Rhode Island but has fewer than 18,000 people in it, or under five inhabitants per square mile.
Related: How to raise rural enrollment in higher education? Go local
Richard, who plans to take some online courses next year with the intention of eventually going to college to become a nurse — she’s already a certified nursing assistant and works part time at a nursing home — is a senior at Foxcroft Academy, the nearly 200-year-old regional high school. She’s chatting in the gym, hung with championship banners commemorating 11 state titles in the last 12 years, where in normal times the community escapes the early winter darkness to watch basketball games; the team is still scheduled to play, but with strict limits on the number of people who can watch.
“Their overall feeling toward education right now is that they’ve just been beaten down.”
Josh Tripp, principal, Bucksport High School, Maine
“Friday nights here, not only do you have athletes on this floor, you’ve got full stands” of fans, said Kandi Martin, a college counselor at the school, gesturing around the empty space.
It’s another example of how the isolation in rural America has been worsened by Covid-19, making it hard for teachers to keep their students motivated, said Martin, who — like many people in town — attended the school and now sends her own two kids there.
“Living in Maine is tough,” said Martin. “Living through a Maine winter is even more difficult. Living through a Maine winter with Covid is crazy.”
Even before now, rural students have doubted their prospects. Though 81 percent in that Maine and Oregon survey said they want a college degree, only 65 percent said they expected they would actually get one. Twenty percent said they weren’t smart enough, 12 percent didn’t want to move away for college and 17 percent said they had to go to work immediately after high school.
Sami Bitat intends to go to college when he graduates from Foxcroft Academy in the spring. But he said many of his classmates feel the same way as one he described: “None of his family went to college, and they’re doing fine. So his idea is, like, ‘Well, they didn’t go to college and they’re doing fine. I don’t see why I have to go to college.’ ”
Arnold Shorey, head of school, recalled a recent conversation with five male students in his office. “We just talked about what they’re going to do after high school,” said Shorey. “All of them should have been selecting college. And every single one said, no, we don’t want to take on the debt. We’re going to go to work.”
Shorey, who grew up on a poultry farm in rural Maine and whose wife is the district superintendent, said many students prefer the immediate payoff of a job to the time, money and effort of getting a degree.
Related: Some colleges extend scholarships and other help to rural high school grads
“Being an 18-year old and having a truck and wanting a snowmobile, making money right off the bat,” he said — many students “are not able to look long term.”
Nor do rural students always have parents with college experience to help them through the complex college application process. Half of Maine adults don’t have a degree or credential past high school.
“A lot of kids just don’t have the exposure at home. Their parents don’t talk to them about going to college,” said Addie Morrison, a Bucksport High School senior whose own parents teach at the school and who plans to go to college.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has put a stop to the usual class assemblies, meetings with college counselors and recruiters and raffles to encourage completing the financial aid forms. “This year there’s a lot less exposure to” the idea of college, Morrison said. “So there’s a lot less interest.”
Trinity McCabe’s mother has encouraged her to go to college, where she hopes to become a veterinary technician. Her single mother started college but never finished and now wraps meat on a farm.
“She just wants the best for me, I think, and wants me to progress further than she got to,” said McCabe, also a senior at Foxcroft Academy.
Related: As jobs grow hard to fill, businesses join the drive to push rural residents toward college
A self-described “farm kid,” McCabe said many of her friends don’t share her aspirations. “They don’t want to spend that much money and not use their degree. So they’ll go and get certified in truck driving or they’ll work on a farm for their entire life. It’s still good money, [and] you don’t have to go to school and have that debt over your head.”
Her classmate Samantha Lancaster plans to put off college and work at a local grocery store or use her IT skills from a certification she earned. “I don’t want to put the money into it if I don’t know what I’m going to be doing,” she said of college. “I’m going to take a couple years to figure out what I want to do.”
Back in Bucksport, many businesses on Main Street are shuttered for the winter or have closed forever, but the drive-through at one local fast-food outlet is bustling.
Science teacher Katy Hunter stops to consider what life awaits some of her students who opt not to continue their educations.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, McDonald’s? I haven’t really thought about that. I don’t really want to know what the end result is going to be. Because it can’t be good.”
This story about rural students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with Maine Public Radio. Additional reporting by Robbie Feinberg. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.