A yellow school bus with snow on the roof chugs up to the front door of Bucksport High School in Maine, 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 says. "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 are translating into more than teenage angst.
Big drops in enrollment
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.
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%, the National College Attainment Network reports. That's worse than the also alarming nearly 16% drop among urban students. The numbers are down even more in largely rural states including West Virginia (32%), Louisiana (30%), Mississippi (26%), Alaska (24%) and Arkansas and Oklahoma (23%).
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%), first-time undergraduate enrollment fell nearly 4% at the University of Idaho, nearly 8% at Idaho State University and more than 5% 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, says of the many students who have opted to forgo college in his service area of rural southwestern Ohio. Enrollment at Southern State dropped 16% this semester, a spokeswoman said.
Biggest barrier to college is price
At the flagship campus of the University of Maine, the number of entering in-state students was down 11% this fall, a spokeswoman said. Maine is the nation's most rural state, with more than 60% of its population considered rural.
Until this year, there were indications that rural college-going was increasing. The proportion of rural students going to college rose from 51% in 2011 to 61% 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% of suburban high school graduates who go to college.
Now there's worry that this progress may reverse, in large part because of COVID-19.
By far the biggest single barrier to college among students in rural schools is the price, according to a survey released in September by researchers at universities in Maine, Oregon, Georgia and Alaska. Average household earnings in rural areas are nearly 20% lower than incomes elsewhere, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. This 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 Bucksport, the paper mill that was the town's biggest employer closed abruptly just before Christmas in 2014, taking more than 500 jobs with it. 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.
"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," says Tripp, wearing a facemask imprinted with the high school's Golden Bucks logo.
Students don't even feel like college is an option
Then, "cold turkey, [people] completely didn't have that choice," he says. "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 says.
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 says he's been wondering the same thing, although he plans to go to college next year.
Some rural students have stopped even coming to school. In Maine, more than 4%, 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. "You feel helpless," Hunter says. "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."
Sixty miles away, in the northern Maine community of Dover-Foxcroft, Amber Richard says of her classmates: "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; 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.
"Living in Maine is tough"
In normal times, locals would escape the winter darkness to watch basketball games at Foxcroft Academy, the nearly 200-year-old regional high school. The team is still scheduled to play, but with strict limits on the number of people who can watch.
"Friday nights here, not only do you have athletes on this floor, you've got full stands" of fans, says Kandi Martin, a college counselor at the school, gesturing around the empty gym, which is hung with championship banners commemorating 11 state titles in the past 12 years.
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, Martin says.
"Living in Maine is tough," Martin says. "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% in that survey said they want a college degree, only 65% said they expected they would actually get one. Twenty percent said they weren't smart enough, 12% didn't want to move away for college and 17% 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 cites one of his friends when describing the way many of his classmates feel about it: "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.' "
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, Bucksport High School senior Addie Morrison says. "So there's a lot less interest."
Bucksport High 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 says. "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.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The number of high school kids from rural areas applying to college has dropped in some parts of the country. It is partly because of the pandemic. Here's Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg.
JOSH TRIPP: Good morning, Alexis.
ALEXIS: Good morning, Mr. Tripp.
TRIPP: How are you?
ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: As the school day gets underway at Bucksport High School, Principal Josh Tripp welcomes students as they hop off the bus. Talk to any of them, and the conversation inevitably gravitates to the town's old paper mill. Tripp talks about the hundreds of stable manufacturing jobs that were lost when it shut down six years ago.
TRIPP: Kids know that they can't just walk out these doors, go down the street, and they're going to have that $45,000-a-year job waiting for them. Doesn't mean that they have to go to college, but they have to have a plan when they leave here.
FEINBERG: To help students with that plan, a few years ago, the high school tried to make applying to college fun. Twice each fall, it would hold FAFSA nights inside the gym to get families to fill out federal financial aid forms, a critical piece of the college application process. There'd be food, giveaways, even raffles for two laptops - incentives to get families to think beyond the jobs in town.
TRIPP: It's different because the mill's not there. So we're like, all right, we need to get them just to fill it out. Whether they go on to college or not, we just need them to fill it out.
FEINBERG: In recent years, college enrollment from the school has begun to climb and now sits above the state average. But Bucksport and other communities in rural Maine are already seeing worrying signals that the pandemic is drastically altering their students' post-high-school plans.
MARY CALLAN: This huge gap is unprecedented, which we couldn't anticipate. So now what? What do we do about that?
FEINBERG: Mary Callan is the project director for GEAR UP Maine, an organization focused on helping rural students get into college. She says major college recruiting events, like field trips to campus, have now been replaced with emails and online presentations. And many families aren't paying attention as they deal with the stresses caused by the pandemic. Callan says of the more than 800 students that her group helped apply last school year, more than 40% never actually ended up enrolling in college this fall.
CALLAN: And that's going to be very hard to recover, if we can recover it ever. I mean, that's a big drop.
FEINBERG: Early indications for this year's high school seniors aren't much better. In rural Maine schools, the percentage who've completed federal financial aid forms is down by nearly 20%. Bucksport High School senior Ethan Lozier says he does expect to attend college next year. But after close to a year of struggling with online classes, he doesn't like the idea of spending money if he can't learn in person.
ETHAN LOZIER: But I'm sure that there are thoughts - they've been in my mind. Why do I want to go and have online classes like this and spend many thousands of dollars?
FEINBERG: And teachers say that they can't even get to the stage of discussing college when they see students just a few days per week or sometimes only through a computer screen. Bucksport science teacher Katy Hunter says one student who she had lunch with every day last year has now completely fallen off the radar.
KATY HUNTER: And it doesn't matter how many times we've tried to contact home. It's just impossible. You know that this person's very capable and a good person. And you know that, like - I don't think they realize what this is going to do to their futures. So it's really hard.
FEINBERG: School staff say they're trying out new strategies over the next few months to reach seniors, including texting them, offering gift cards and even sending them snail mail like brochures. They're hoping that may help reverse the concerning college trends, as experts worry that fewer local college students could ultimately mean fewer skilled workers, which are needed to help rural communities like this one grow.
For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Bucksport, Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KING: That story was a collaboration with The Hechinger Report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.