College access is getting harder for rural Wisconsin

RICHLAND CENTER — Emily Lund tried so hard to make 21½-hour days work.

For eight months, the 21-year-old farmer got up at 5 a.m. to feed the animals on the family farm nestled in the rolling hills just outside of Richland Center, which she’s been running for nearly three years.

Most weekdays, after two hours of feeding animals, she’d leave her farm by 8 a.m. to make the 1½-hour trek to UW-Madison, where she was enrolled as a double major in agriculture business and science and is learning about cattle breeding.

Typically, she’d stay on campus until nearly 6 p.m., then drive back to the farm. Home at 8, she’d give the animals their evening feed and get her own dinner around 10. Then it was homework until 2:30 a.m., when she’d fall asleep for two and a half hours before starting over again. That’s if chasing coyotes away didn’t keep her up all night.

“I cannot figure out a balanced way to receive a higher education where I can’t leave my little, tiny town,” she said in April.

Many rural students in Wisconsin are finding it increasingly difficult to access higher education.

In the past 18 months, the Universities of Wisconsin has effectively closed five of the system’s branch campuses, most of which predominantly served rural students. The UW system cited declining enrollment, not finances, as the reason, even as the system projected that 13 campuses would be a cumulative $60 million over budget by the end of fiscal 2024.

To see how this is affecting rural communities, the Wisconsin State Journal spoke with more than 90 people — including school administrators, high school and college students and their families — across western Wisconsin, where college options, both public and private, are sparser than the central and eastern parts of the state.

Lund is driven to get her education, but her options are dwindling.

She had earned 60% of the credits she’d need for a bachelor’s degree at UW-Platteville’s Richland campus — a mere 3 minutes, 37 seconds from her driveway to the parking lot, just enough time for a Toby Keith song.

But the Richland campus closed in June. Then UW-Madison told her only four of her 72 Richland credits would transfer. Online schooling isn’t an option because her degree programs require lab work.

By April, she’d had enough. She withdrew from UW-Madison with just weeks left in the semester.

So this fall, Lund will try her hand at Platteville’s main campus: It’s still more than an hour drive from the farm, but parking should be readily available and the campus is much easier to navigate.

“I know not everyone is a first-gen farmer, but there’s a lot of kids and students and people here in this town that have the same hiccup of, ‘I own livestock, because someone has to raise these animals so everybody else can eat,’” she said. “They can’t really leave, without leaving Dad in charge, or Grandpa, or be, like, a big part of that farm that’s now gone.”

For people like Lund, tied to a place by other obligations, the elimination of branch campuses may put higher education out of reach altogether. But on a larger scale, the closures risk exacerbating a growing gap in educational achievement between urban and rural residents.

Proximity matters

Most college students are commuters, said Alyssa Ratledge, a postsecondary education researcher for nonprofit education and social policy organization MDRC, also known as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. Nationally, more than half of four-year university students and 80% of two-year college students go to school within 25 miles of home.

“If you live in a place where there is not a college within 25 miles of your home, you really have to make a different decision about what that looks like for you,” Ratledge said. “One of the things that we see is that particularly if you’re living in a place where not a lot of the people in your family or your community have gone to college before, graduated from college, you might think, ‘Well, it still would really be a hassle for me to go to college, so maybe I will stay here,’ and not pursue it entirely.”

College participation rates in Wisconsin have decreased overall by 14% since 2019.

But over the past 20 years, the share of rural college students at UW system campuses has shrunk in ways that population shifts don’t explain.

The number of UW system freshmen from Adams County, for example, dropped by 62.5% between fall 2003 and fall 2023, from 40 students to 15, while the county population — albeit aging — grew by 5%, according to U.S. census data. The numbers coming from Richland and Wood counties plummeted by nearly 58% and 66%, respectively. In other rural counties, the college participation level has stagnated or dipped slightly.

Conversely, the representation from places like Madison, Eau Claire and the greater Milwaukee area on UW campuses is growing.

About half of Wisconsin has just a single technical college campus nearby or no higher education options within a person’s “commuting zone” — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a cluster of counties that support one another’s economic activity — according to research by Nicholas Hillman, a UW-Madison professor in the School of Education and director of the Student Success Through Applied Research Lab.

Stacking challenges

Urban and rural students share a lot of the same challenges, but in rural areas, those challenges can stack up.

There’s a shortage of guidance counselors statewide, for example, compared with the nation as a whole. Yet rural counselors, nationwide, on average juggle 15 more students than their nonrural counterparts.

Many of the rural students interviewed would be the first in their families to attend college. Rural areas tend to see lower rates of college attainment for people age 25 and older, with a fifth of Wisconsin’s rural counties having 20% or less of adults with a bachelor’s degree. Nearly half of adults in metropolitan areas such as Waukesha and Ozaukee have a bachelor’s degree; in Dane County, home to UW-Madison, 55% of adults have bachelor’s degrees.

Online classes may be an option for some students, but most of Wisconsin, largely to the north and west, either has no fixed broadband access or has a single option providing moderate internet speeds, according to a Public Service Commission map.

And there’s the intimidation factor.

“I went from a school with 47 people that I saw every single day — my biggest class was six (people),” Lund said. “At Madison, the smallest lecture halls are 350 people and I felt like a fish in the sea. I don’t know my professor, my professor doesn’t know me. Who do I ask for help? Where do I go?”

Cost as a barrier

In Wisconsin, the average annual cost to stay in a UW system residence hall and eat on campus has gone up by nearly 28% in the last decade, from $6,414 in 2013 to $8,903 for this fall. Tuition for in-state undergraduate students has gone up by 5% and 3% in the past two years after nearly a decade of tuition freezes imposed by state lawmakers.

“I’m probably going to be working for around a year, maybe. I’ll also probably go into the military,” Alex Dilley, Wisconsin Dells High School senior, said. “Because I honestly don’t really know what else to do. I live in kind of a poor family, so I don’t have money to go to college.”

Children and teens are internalizing the message that college costs a lot, perhaps too much, Nekoosa High School Principal Keith Johnson said.

“We’re all doing a really great job of making students really worried about the cost of higher education. And we’re doing a fantastic job of making them say, ‘Maybe this isn’t worth it,’” Johnson said. “What we as adults are feeding kids is sinking in, and it always does. As a society, we’ve had phenomenal success in convincing kids to recycle, we’ve had phenomenal success in convincing kids not to start smoking. Children listen to us. And they are listening to us as we talk about the cost of higher education.”

In Wisconsin, the counties with the highest average wage are mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the state, closest to the two largest metropolitan areas of Milwaukee and Madison, and the median household income ranges between $64,420 and $94,310 a year. The counties surrounding Milwaukee are the richest, pulling in average household incomes of $85,000 or more a year.

But for many rural counties, especially in the western and central parts of the state, the median family income can be far lower. Adams County, which ranks second-to-last in the median household income among all counties, has an average income of $51,878. The average annual household income in 29 of the state’s 72 counties is below $60,000.

AP and dual enrollment courses with technical colleges and four-year universities can help lower the total expense of higher education by allowing high school students to earn credits toward their college degrees for little to no money out of pocket.

Dual enrollment classes, through which students get both high school and college credits, come largely at no cost to students, as colleges discount tuition and pass the bill on to the district; for AP classes, students can earn up to eight college credits from a test that costs $98, depending on their score and their university’s standards.

“A lot of the goal is for students (who) really want to get moving on with their lives,” said Stephen Swallen, campus director for UW-Platteville at Baraboo Sauk County, which facilitates dual enrollment classes for high schools in its region. “They see an education as a pathway to their personal success, and the sooner they can do that, the better. And so if they already have a year of college under their belt by the time they graduate high school, they just shorten their time in college, and of course, the college costs.”

But here, too, rural school districts typically have fewer options.

Students in suburban school districts have an average of 13 AP classes to choose from; in rural school districts, the average is six. Schools with fewer than 300 students tend to offer four AP classes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Nearly a quarter of Wisconsin high school students were in dual enrollment classes during the 2021-22 school year, more than twice the percentage a decade ago, according to a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, including 11,500 students enrolled in early college credit classes through the UW system.

Lack of counselors

Rural areas may lack resources about college as well, and a lack of guidance counselors isn’t the only challenge.

The farther away from a university people live, the less likely they are to see recruiters from universities. Because of limited resources and time within UW system admissions departments, in-person recruiting is often limited to areas closest to the schools, said Corey Sjoquist, assistant vice chancellor for admissions and recruitment for UW-La Crosse.

As a result, the impetus for getting to college has to start with students. Without access to college-readiness programs or recruiting, they are on their own to research where to go to college and what program will be the right fit.

Avery Simpson, a junior elementary education major at UW-Madison and one of its College for Rural Wisconsin ambassadors, saw the effects of having fewer college resources during her own high school experience. She grew up on a farmette in rural Brooklyn, in Green County, where she keeps honeybees and grows strawberries. She ultimately chose UW-Madison to stay close to home.

Simpson spent her first two years of high school in the Evansville School District. A rural community of fewer than 6,000 people with a deep farming background, despite its proximity to both Madison and Janesville, college wasn’t talked about much there, she said.

For her last two years of high school, Simpson enrolled in the Oregon School District, a suburban district in Madison’s larger metropolitan area. There, she had a better selection of AP classes, college was talked about more and the school got more visits from college recruiters.

“We didn’t really have anyone from the colleges coming to us, growing up,” Simpson said of Evansville High School. “Something that we’re trying to do with rural ambassadors is bring those college resources to the schools that are lacking them. One of the schools that we visited didn’t even have a counselor, so students didn’t have anyone to go to with those college questions.”

The State Journal talked with dozens of college-bound rural students and most knew little about UW system schools, other than UW-Madison. Nearly all of the students interviewed within the Mid-State Technical College district knew of the technical college, though, a result of the technical college’s monthly presence in the high schools.

Some high schools push for representatives from the UW system to come to their schools, rather than UW reaching out to them.

“It is quite challenging for us to engage,” said Johnson, the principal in Nekoosa, which is 40 minutes from UW-Stevens Point. “We engage a lot with UWSP, but we engage a lot with UWSP because of our push. We push ourselves on Stevens Point. If we lived in Stevens Point, the university pushes on the school district to engage with them. We have to fight to get engagement.”

Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman said system leadership is considering increasing in-person recruitment in high schools, but with 13 four-year universities and now eight remaining two-year branch campuses, maintaining a reach outside of their immediate communities is difficult.

Sjoquist said admissions counselors visit schools in La Crosse and the surrounding counties at least twice a year and try to get out to farther counties such as Adams and Juneau when their schedules permit. Often, high schools from more distant counties bring students for college tours.

Sjoquist himself is a former rural student from Minnesota and was the first in his family to go off to college.

“I love going to high schools to visit; I wish I could do it more often. But in my current role, I can’t do that as much as I used to,” Sjoquist said. “But for us as a university — and you can call it the Wisconsin Idea … I think it truly is for us to be a resource to those schools and especially those school counselors in the smallest of school districts.”

In need of local options

Morgan Biba relies on Mid-State’s Adams campus to get her nursing degree. In addition to being a student, Biba is a certified nursing assistant and mother to two children, Kaydence, 7, and Elliott, 3. When she took classes at Mid-State’s campus in Wisconsin Rapids in previous semesters, Biba missed out on a lot of family time. Wisconsin Rapids is about an hour drive from her Endeavor home in Marquette County. By the time she’d get home, her husband, Johnathan, had made dinner and her kids were getting ready for bed.

“It’s more stress on my husband, more stress on the kids, the whole family cycle just kind of gets thrown off,” Biba said. “If I did have to go all the way to the Rapids for all of my classes, I would probably drag it out longer just so I’m not missing as much. I mean, time is precious and having two kids, I want to be present in their life as much as I can.”

It’s more than long commutes, though. For many rural families, a student physically leaving home for their education means the loss of a vital employee, an extra set of hands to make the household run or an additional source of income.

Amara O’Leary is attending MATC’s Reedsburg campus to get her nursing degree. She lives on a farm that’s been in the family for four generations in La Valle, west of Reedsburg. The farm, nestled between picturesque forested hills, is home to O’Leary, her parents and her grandfather, whose limited mobility means he requires daily assistance.

In addition to caretaking, O’Leary works as a certified nursing assistant at the Sauk County Health Care Center, which is a 10-minute drive from home and adjacent to the MATC Reedsburg campus.

“I actually got voted Most Likely to Never Leave Reedsburg in high school, so it kind of fit because everyone else in my graduating class seemed like they moved away,” O’Leary said. “I didn’t want to go far … and with Grandpa, I have to always have my phone on me.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Source: College access is getting harder for rural Wisconsin

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