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Why some rural universities are dropping dozens of programs

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Many colleges and universities in rural America are slashing budgets as enrollment numbers continue to dwindle. And often, the first things to be cut are humanities programs like history and English. It's forcing some students to consider transferring to other schools or leaving higher education altogether. Jon Marcus has been covering this erosion of funding at rural universities and its domino effects with The Hechinger Report, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JON MARCUS: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: So to start with, Jon, how widespread are these program cuts at some of these rural schools?

MARCUS: Well, we've seen, already, significant cuts in states including Kansas, Arkansas. The University of Alaska system has scaled back more than 40 academic programs. There are signs that there will be more examples of this ahead in North Dakota, in Iowa at Iowa State University.

MCCAMMON: And what have you learned from your reporting about how schools are deciding which programs to cut?

MARCUS: As you pointed out, they're cutting a lot of humanities majors, and they say that their decision-making process is, in part, a result of student demand. They say that students and families in rural places can't afford to take courses in subjects such as English, philosophy or history. But we're also talking about physics, chemistry, all language courses at many of these universities - quite a range of topics. You look at some of what's being cut at these universities and you wonder what might be left.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, quite a wide range of majors there, including some in the hard sciences, which everybody seems to point to as the path to careers. What's behind this? Why are so many schools seeing these enrollment shortfalls and also budget cuts?

MARCUS: Nationwide, the proportion of high school graduates going on to college is declining. The principal reason for this is a growing public skepticism about the value for money, whether it's worth the cost of tuition to go to college. And that sentiment is more extreme if you look at survey data in rural areas, especially among men in rural areas. So these universities in rural areas have legitimately seen declines in enrollment. And when you have declines in enrollment, you have fewer resources to provide these programs. But it's also true that in 16 of the 20 most rural states in this country, legislatures have cut funding for higher education. And that also is affecting what universities and colleges are able to provide.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned skepticism of higher ed going back several years. How sudden is this? Is this another pandemic effect primarily, or is it part of a longer-term trend?

MARCUS: It is not solely a pandemic effect. About a million and a half fewer college students are enrolled now than at the beginning of the pandemic. But over the last 10 years, there's been a decline of 4 million fewer college students enrolled now than there were 10 years ago. It coincided with prices, of course, continuing to go up. Colleges have also not done much to improve their success rates, so graduation rates are low, dropout rates are high. All of those things have finally compounded to a point at which a lot of people wonder why they ought to bother to go to college.

MCCAMMON: I'd love to hear more about what those rural students are telling you. You know, you quote school administrators who say they're prioritizing programs like nursing and teaching because of the fact that students want clear job prospects. What are the students saying about that?

MARCUS: I'm hearing from students that they want to take the programs that they want to take and, in many cases, are planning to transfer, leave their states and probably not come back. So there's this vicious cycle of young people with the ambition to go to college having to now go farther away in order to find places that offer those subjects and those disciplines potentially not coming home to their hometowns. And so we end up with fewer people in places that need college-educated workers having them.

MCCAMMON: That was Jon Marcus. He covers rural colleges and universities for The Hechinger Report. Jon, thanks so much for your time.

MARCUS: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.