The isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic are driving the dramatic drop in numbers, threatening the already precarious economies of these areas and widening their socioeconomic drift.



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.


KING: That story was a collaboration with The Hechinger Report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.