Number of rural students planning on going to college plummets

BUCKSPORT, Maine — Its roof frosted with a covering of the previous night’s snow, a

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.