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The college challenge in a meatpacking town

In West Kansas, rural Hispanic students juggle work, education, and family.

Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: Higher ed’s limits in West Kansas.
02: Roadside Attractions: Teaching in the Tetons.
03: In the Sticks: Where should Liberal parents turn?

Aneth Morales, an advisor with Kansas State College Advising Corps, works with a senior at Liberal High School (Courtesy)

01: Postcards

Six hours southwest of Kansas City, brushing up against the Oklahoma panhandle, Liberal got its name because its first settler was “‘liberal”’ in giving free water to thirsty travelers passing through the remote region.

It got its big break when natural gas was discovered, in 1920, and when oil was found in 1951, which brought the world’s largest helium plant a decade later.

The National Beef plant opened in 1993, marking a decade of boom in this boom-bust town — as workers came, the population grew to almost 20,000 people, a nearly 20-percent surge.

Aneth Morales works as a college adviser here. Born in Mexico, she moved to the United States as an 8-year-old, and grew up an hour-and-a-half away in Dodge City. She knows what it’s like to be in her students’ shoes.

“My approach is to remove the anxiety that comes from these conversations,” says Aneth, who is part of the Kansas State College Advising Corp, which hires recent college graduates to serve as full-time advisers in high schools across the state.

The lack of counselors has been a challenge across America, where there are roughly 424 students for every one counselor — significantly higher than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

There are more than 300 seniors at Liberal High School that Aneth tries to help, and more than four-fifths of her students are Hispanic, according to state data.

Almost as many are economically disadvantaged, and so the conversation is never just about education. Finances and culture come up often, as Aneth sits down with them to chart their post-high-school paths.

She worries her students don’t always see themselves as college material and tries to show them it’s more than pop culture portrayals of Greek life and other things that seem so foreign to them.

She tells them their experiences — which often include driving their parents and siblings around town, while also managing part- or full-time work — are actually great preparation for the juggling that college requires.

“In a way, we are desensitized to how much work it takes to be a student,” Aneth says, “but they are ready for that.”

Many worry about student debt, rising tuition, and not being able to make money while attending a university. As she talks with their parents, she sees the biggest difference between those who are watching their first kids graduate high school and those who have been through this before.

The first-timers tend to be excited about the idea of college. The others are more wary.

Many of them have already sent their older kids to college, and too many have seen them come back, in debt, and without a degree.

Aneth understands. She saw all it took to get her psychology degree from Fort Hays State University, where she had to work constantly to pay her bills despite having a full scholarship.

Sure, student loans are an option, but it’s one she is more and more hesitant to bring up. When so many of the parents struggle to understand what the FAFSA is, how can she advise them to co-sign on thousands of dollars of debt?

“The motivation alone, the American dream, isn’t enough to pay for it,” she says.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • ‘Boots on the ground economists’ step into rural America. Laura Ullrich is a senior regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which will host the Investing in Rural America conference in Roanoke this April. This Daily Yonder piece takes a look at her work as she writes about NC Tech Paths, a program we wrote about earlier this year as it helps rural North Carolinians enter tech.

  • A test for teaching in Wyoming: Another flashback for Mile Markers readers — in early February, we wrote about how the University of Wyoming is working to fill teaching gaps in rural areas by offering more training and support for seasoned teachers, rather than focusing solely on attracting new ones. This week, The Hechinger Report took their own look at how the Master Educator Competency Program is helping rural districts like Teton County near Yellowstone National Park.

  • From high school dropout to college president. Melissa Singler earned her GED, flunked out of a four-year university, married young, and had a family … all before resuming her education and, now, serving as president of rural Robeson Community College. She has helped the college defy statewide trends, with RCC’s enrollment jumping 17 percent for the 2021-22 school year, even as North Carolina’s overall community college system saw a 14 percent drop in enrollment since the 2018-19 class.

At Liberal High School, more than 82 percent of the students are Hispanic, and more than 71 percent are economically disadvantaged (Photo: Nick Fouriezos)

03: In the Sticks

“I’m just going to go here,” many students say, when they meet with Aneth for the first time.

“What do you mean by here?” Aneth always replies.

She knows that “here” is Seward County Community College, less than three miles from the high school they are sitting in, where the Liberal Redskins won four football state championships in that heyday of the ‘90s.

Morales challenges her students to not assume it’s “settling” to attend the community college. One of her main messages is that any choice they make — college, jobs, or military — shouldn’t be a default.

At times, it can feel like growing up in a rural town like Liberal means growing up ruled by a series of invisible defaults.

Hispanic families, particular in rural areas, face a unique set of challenges. Most parents value higher education, seeing it as part of the American dream, but don’t know how to help, from filling out FAFSAs to sending in college applications.

Two-fifths of her students are in ESL classes. It’s hard enough for native English speakers to understand higher ed lingo, much less non-native ones.

“Some of the materials online, the translation makes me cringe,” says Aneth, who translates as best as she can for the parents.

The Liberal Redskins won 19 of their 35 state championships in the ‘90s, boom times for the town as oil, gas, and meatpacking jobs grew.

Students worry about the burden they’ll put on their parents. “They know it is expensive, but they don’t know how expensive — that’s one of the things I walk them through,” Aneth says. When they see the additional costs of housing, food, and fees, “that’s when I see their motivation drop.”

Those who still want to attend a four-year university often aren’t sure which programs or scholarships are available, and think they don’t have any options.

Driven by the American dream, many immigrant parents still do believe in the value of attending college. “They tell their children, ‘This is why you are here, this is why I sacrificed what I had, to be in this country,’” Aneth says.

Yet many of those parents don’t know how to help their kids get there. And, as much of rural America struggles to find advisers, they often don’t have an Aneth to help them.

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