Editor's note: The promise of public education in America has lifted up millions of children and helped to create the middle class. But education opportunities in cities far outpace those in rural areas. In 2020, as the divisions in America are starker than perhaps ever before, the USA TODAY Network will examine issues in rural education. Reporters in our Network are uniquely positioned to write these stories: Many of them call small-town and mid-America home. This month, the series launches with an exploration of the widest educational divide between rural and urban America: the percentage of adults with college degrees.
BALDWIN, Mich. – The squeals of elementary students at recess and the occasional hiss of a tractor-trailer's tires on the main drag serve as the only soundtrack as a quartet of high school students head for some fun away from school.
Traffic stops briefly as it leaves town, next to the county courthouse and a gas station at the town's only traffic signal – a flashing red light.
It’s a stereotypical rural small-town scene.
Two hundred miles southeast, on the edge of the University of Michigan campus, a jackhammer pounds away, cars roll in a steady stream along a nearby street and students crowd sidewalks. A homeless man pleads for help. Inside a coffee shop, tables are full of students studying, professors working on plans and townies just sipping a latte.
It’s a stereotypical college town scene.
The towns show little similarity. Ann Arbor is in Washtenaw County, Michigan’s richest county in terms of median household income. Baldwin is in Lake County, Michigan’s poorest.
Washtenaw is Michigan’s most educated county, having the highest percentage of adults with some sort of college degree. Lake County is among Michigan’s least educated, having the second-lowest percentage of college-educated adults.
From Lake County, it's a 40-minute drive west to the nearest community college or a 40-minute drive south to a four-year college. The county is smack dab in the middle of a higher education desert, one of a handful of such spots in Michigan, most north of Grand Rapids. In that same 40-minute drive, an Ann Arbor resident can reach four community colleges and two public, four-year colleges.
The deserts are home to Michigan’s poorest counties, the kind that need a boost from employers bringing jobs. There’s a vicious circle at work – no easy access to education past high school, which means no highly trained workforce, which means no reason for a small manufacturing company or a software firm to come to town, which means not many jobs that pay well, which means more poverty, which means it’s harder for people to have money for college.
It's a circle that's repeated all across America. In 2016, across U.S. states and territories, 5.4 million individuals lived in education deserts, lacking access to any type of higher education institution within a 45-minute drive, according to a study by the Jain Family Institute. Looking at public colleges alone, 10.1 million individuals live in education deserts and 30.7 million individuals have access to only one public school.
"The skills gap is going to kill rural America," said Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance. "If there's nowhere for students to get the training they need, they aren't going to be able to get the jobs they need."
Poverty in rural Michigan: Relentless aging and few opportunities for those of working age
Deserts across America
Hundreds of American counties are education deserts, places that lack easy access to higher education within a half-hour drive.
The average population of a commuting zone desert is approximately 72,100, according to a study by Nicholas Hillman and Taylor Weichman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fifteen commuting zone deserts have populations of more than 250,000.
Most are rural areas, which makes it hard for a community college to be located there, Smith said.
"Population matters in where community colleges are located. Geography matters and transportation matters," he said.
A community's wealth also matters.
"It's a stark reality: The richer ZIP codes" have more education options, said Laura Beamer, one of the researchers on the Jain Family Institute study.
It takes millions of dollars to start a school, then the college must attract enough students to pay the operating costs. It can be a challenge to recruit faculty to a rural area because of low pay and lack of job options for spouses.
It's hard to recruit schoolteachers, too: Inside the struggle to keep teachers at rural schools
The pursuit of education
Every day for her last two years of high school, Nicole Mooney got to leave her midmorning class at Baldwin High School 15 minutes early.
She grabbed her lunch and headed to a school bus, where she would eat while it bounced down the road, heading west from Baldwin, through the Huron-Manistee National Forest on a ride of a half-hour to 45 minutes to West Shore Community College.
Over the two years, she took English Composition I & II, Intro to Psychology, Interpersonal Communications, College Algebra, Western Civilization to 1600 and U.S. History to 1865 through dual enrollment.
Lake County, where Mooney grew up, doesn't register on a map of Michigan counties that are home to some sort of college. Neither does a huge chunk of the northern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, the entirety of the "Thumb" or some of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Michigan's 15 public universities, 28 public community colleges and dozens of private colleges and universities are largely clustered around each other. Most are within 80 miles of the Indiana or Ohio border.
That's hurting students all across the state, from high schoolers to those seeking career training. It's a barrier to economic mobility, trapping rural residents in poverty.
Like many high school students across Michigan, Mooney had a limited number of classes available to her. Dual enrollment in college classes offered a chance to take advanced classes Baldwin High couldn't offer and to stockpile college credits for free.
"We're a small rural community, fairly isolated," said Baldwin school Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer. "We're extremely rural. … We're trying to create a culture where (students) expect to go to college."
Baldwin is making a push to help students understand that if they want to improve their financial well-being – more than 90% of the district's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty – they need some sort of post-high-school training.
"When you don't have somewhere close by," it's harder for students to get that training, Heitmeyer said.
Lisa McIntyre, 28, lives outside Rogers City in the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula. Neither she nor her husband, both graduates of Rogers City High School, have college degrees. They live in another of Michigan's education deserts.
McIntyre works at a gas station. She's worked other minimum-wage jobs for the past decade or so. Her husband works a combination of construction and landscape jobs. Combined, they earn about $32,000 a year.
"I really wanted to be a nurse," McIntyre said, adding she loved helping people and thought nursing would be a stable career. "But I couldn't really get anywhere for training after high school. I didn't really have a car that was good for a lot of driving, so driving anywhere not right around here just wasn't an option."
The nearest community college, in Alpena, is about 30 miles from Rogers City. The nearest four-year school is Lake Superior State University, about 85 miles away. Central Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University are each about 130 miles south.
"We're making it (financially), but I wonder sometimes if it would have been different if we went to college," she said.
The 30-mile commute to Alpena is about average for a rural community college student, Smith said. That's sometimes in areas with heavy snow or no freeways. "Depending on where the college is and what the season (of the year) is, that can be tough," he said.
Online classes are an option, but that's hard as well. Lots of rural America lacks reliable broadband internet needed for video classes. And some subjects simply need hands-on teaching – it can be hard to teach welding online, for example.
As federal debate swirls over free college and the cost hurdles to higher education, it's important to work on other barriers, Beamer said: "It's just as important that (students) be able to attend a school close by."
Big Bad Axe
Bad Axe is big, at least compared with what else is around. It has an active downtown. There’s a KFC, McDonald's and the normal slate of other fast-food restaurants common to Everywhere U.S.A.
Missing from Bad Axe – and any other city in Michigan's Thumb – is a community college. The community college nearest to Bad Axe is in either Flint or Port Huron, both about 60 miles away on country roads.
A beige sign advertising Mid-Michigan College outside a one-story building on the outskirts of Bad Axe is a bit jarring, if for nothing else than the fact that Mid-Michigan College is 115 miles to the west.
But last semester, 17 students were scattered across a classroom in small groups, listening to Julie Carr, an adjunct professor at Mid-Michigan, teach them about introductions in her college-level speech class.
The students are part of a dual enrollment program with the Huron Intermediate School District and Mid-Michigan. In addition to the dual enrollment program, for-credit and noncredit classes are offered, including some in the evening.
It's an attractive partnership for all involved. Huron County gets job training, college prep classes and workforce development it might not have otherwise had. Mid-Michigan gets students and tuition payments, along with a chance to fulfill its mission to "empower learners and transform communities," said Scott Mertes, vice president of community outreach and advancement, even if the communities it works with are a hundred miles from its main campus.
Most of the dual enrollment classes are taught in one of three classrooms in a row, behind a closed door at the end of a hallway.
Because it needed access to an emergency chemical rinse-off shower, the biology lab is carved out in the back of a machine shop. Expensive microscopes dot the tables, while a camera hookup to the instructor's microscope shows what he sees on a large flat-screen television on a stand at the front of the area.
Chloe Guest, 17, a senior at Laker High School in nearby Pigeon, is looking for a jump-start on college.
"You don't have a teacher talking to you all the time here, checking in on whether you did everything," she said. "You have to do it. We're constantly studying."
In addition to getting students used to college-level classes, dual enrollment means they can graduate with dozens of college credits already taken for free. That's a big deal for holding down costs for students from rural families without a lot of money.
It's an opportunity missed in other education deserts across Michigan.
Those areas "can't afford to start a new community college," Mertes said. Mid-Michigan is already in a rural area. "We want to help as many communities as we can. Partnerships are the best way."
"We want to provide services they lack," Mertes said. "Online is certainly available, but our commitment is to look for face-to-face instruction first."
There is no statewide push in Michigan to form more of those partnerships. And there's not likely to be, said Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. In Michigan, each community college is run by a board elected by voters in the community college's district. The board and college president don't report to a statewide authority.
"We are so decentralized that any time you mention state coordination," Hansen said, "people break out in hives."
Follow David Jesse on Twitter: @reporterdavidj
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: College crisis: Rural America's education deserts trap poor people