Rural universities, already few and far between, are cutting majors

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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.”

So Witherspoon enrolled at the nearest public four-year higher education institution, Emporia State University, about 60 miles up Interstate 35. She 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.

Now, said Witherspoon, “if I was still a high school senior, 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 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,” said Andrew Koricich, an associate professor of higher education at Appalachian State University and executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.

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.

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.

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.

“Think about whether people in urban and suburban areas would put up with” cuts like those, Koricich said.

To Sean Singer, another Emporia State student, who is majoring in history and political science — both of which are being cut — “it’s saying to us that they don’t value us, that our towns are doomed to be train stops.”

The universities point to funding shortfalls and dwindling enrollment as among the reasons they’ve been forced to take dramatic action. 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.

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.

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, who was 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. “They don’t have the luxury of coming here to do something that’s not going to pay off for them or their families.”

But that assumes employers don’t want humanities graduates, said Megan Hickerson, who teaches history at Henderson State — one of the programs being cut — “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.”

Many faculty see polarized politics at work. “Classism,” Hickerson called it.

“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.’”

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 with 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.

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. “They feel more comfortable with us.”

Paring down rural universities means those young people lose out on “not just the major they always dreamed of, but all the majors they never knew existed,” said Susan Brinkman, another Emporia State graduate, who got her degree in art and is now a city commissioner in Emporia.

Many will leave to study somewhere else, Brinkman said 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 “they’re not coming back when they graduate.”

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 Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, which is leaning on that model.

In a survey of current and prospective Pennsylvania students, most said they preferred in-person classes, but 9 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 1 in 5 people in rural places don’t have access to high-speed internet, compared with about 1 percent in cities, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

But Thomas, the new provost at Emporia State, 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.”

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.

“They pretty much think the places where we live are already kind of a lost cause.”

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 its higher education newsletter.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Henderson State University is in Alabama. It is in Arkansas. The article has been corrected.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/12/16/rural-university-college-major/