Politics, practicality, price: Across Florida, rural students put off by perceived weaknesses of higher education

In rural enclaves, practical-minded students are losing faith in the value of college. Many see it as an outright corrosive force and are frustrated by its outsize cost
and perceived uselessness.
Published November 16
Updated November 20

WAKULLA COUNTY — Shelby Joiner’s brother dropped out of Wakulla High School after his sophomore year and enrolled at a welding academy. Then he ended up at the top of his class.

“He tells me about it all the time,” his little sister said.

After all those stories, Shelby went to a cookout with her high school’s welding students, who were searing elk and charring oysters on grills they’d made themselves. And soon, she was coming around to the humid welding workshop between classes. Petite, soft-spoken Shelby learned to tie red bandannas around her bare ankles and shoelaces to keep them from burning and to guide the blue flame so it melds metal in painterly lines.

There was power in that, and a future, too, for a 17-year-old in a forested patch of the Panhandle who says college was never her destiny.

“It seemed like such a fantasy world,” she said, “like only the smartest, richest kids got to pursue that.”

Rural students are far less likely than urban and suburban peers to go to college, and the divide is growing deeper in places across Florida. If they do go, rural students are less likely to choose four-year universities, and they’re more likely to drop out. Many hail from deep-red counties in the economic lurch — the same places where, in major polls, people say they’re disillusioned with higher education.

Shelby can’t see herself working in an office all day. Neither could her sister, who joined the Louisiana National Guard. Nor her brother, who wants to buy a welding machine for their backyard and start a lucrative family business.

“I like the grit and the hard, real effort,” Shelby said. Lately, she’s been working on turning a bus lug nut into a class ring.

***

Many high school graduates will leave Wakulla County, where farming and manufacturing jobs are scarce and a net ban battered the Gulf fishing industry. Those who stay often teach, work at the power plant or crawl along a one-lane road north to Tallahassee. So, Superintendent Robert Pearce said, their schooling must get them ready to make tough decisions.

“It’s all about practicality,” Pearce said. “The mindset is: What makes the most sense?”

The 1990s-era “college for everybody” sensibility has faded, he said, and thanks to Florida’s investment in career training programs, high schoolers have options. They split time at the community college to earn credits for free. They go on to earn certificates and affordable two-year degrees.

The ambivalence toward four-year universities, Pearce said, is more about a self-reliant way of life.

There’s respect for a college degree — albeit a certain kind. Business, computer science, agriculture, sure. Social work?

“That’s probably a tough conversation across the coffee tables and the kitchen tables in this county,” he said.

Rural families remain deeply skeptical of a pricey degree that could be useless back home. And they often don’t have as many resources that build a bridge to college and emphasize the undeniable benefits — some 65 percent of today’s jobs require education or training beyond high school.

Think about it this way: If college recruiters skip your far-flung district and your parents never got through more than a handful of night classes, you might not see a path for yourself. If you hear about student loan debt topping $1 trillion, you might write off college as a drain.

The idea that college is the provenance of the elite also is eroding confidence in higher ed. That gulf has been widening since President Donald Trump’s win in 2016 tapped into economic despair and alienation felt by white, working-class Americans without college degrees.

Trump’s son Donald Jr. has ranted about what he sees as universities’ unchecked liberalism — “We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange, we’ll train your children to hate our country. ... We’ll make them unemployable by teaching them courses in zombie studies, underwater basket weaving and, my personal favorite, tree climbing.”

A Pew study last year found that 58 percent of conservatives said colleges have had a negative effect on the country. Working-class Democrats also are losing faith as costs keep rising.

In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last year, only three in 10 people in rural areas said college is worth the cost.

Folks in Wakulla County are pragmatic and proud, said Superintendent Pearce.

“These are people pissed about people kneeling for the flag at football games, people that like to have guns,” he said. “Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter. These are people who mow their own grass. They are used to the struggle of life.”

***

Angel Leonard’s mom and teachers started telling her in third grade that she was smart, that college was her path. “You need to go there, you have to,” they chanted. Totally, she thought. She got on an advanced academic track, had perfect attendance. Maybe she’d be an engineer, or a lawyer.

But something changed in her sophomore year at Wakulla High.

“Wow, that’s actually a lot of school, a lot of money, a lot of time,” she thought. “I could just go get a job out of high school that only requires a little bit of education and that would be just fine.”

Her older brother did that, after all, telling Angel about college: “There’s nothing there for me.”

It’s also hard to stomach leaving when she has helped care for her two younger sisters. Her mom, who said, “Go, go, go,” has grown scared to lose her help as Angel streams toward the end of her senior year.

At 17, she’s on track to graduate as valedictorian, just one class shy of an associate’s degree, and she’s applying to a few universities, such as Florida State.

But she doesn’t want the traditional college experience, the partying. She wants to get in and get out. Two years, business degree, start a career as a real estate broker.

That’s if she doesn’t get derailed by the collegiate jargon: Unsubsidized loans, registrars and comptrollers, “demonstrated need,” Ed.D.s and FAFSAs.

She sees peers defeated by paperwork alone, like one of her best friends, who talked about becoming a surgeon, but told her, “Angel, this is very stressful, I’m just about to quit.”

***

Camerin Hatcher spends $50 a week on gas, but she reasons it’s better than rent in Tallahassee. She turns up country or Christian music and tries to unwind on the long stretch of Interstate 10, an hour and 45 minutes from her in-laws’ pecan farm to the FSU College of Law.

“Where I'm from, you're just so far away from the major universities,” she said. “I was a very motivated student, but if I didn't have my parents behind me, I probably wouldn't be in law school right now.”

Camerin, 21, grew up off a dirt road in Poplar Springs, a community just south of Alabama with roots in peanuts and cotton, where the closest Piggly-Wiggly is a town over in Graceville.

Her college-educated parents encouraged her to earn a degree — “or else I would be making $10 an hour working for somebody else,” Camerin said.

So for two years, while still in high school, she drove 40 minutes to Chipola State College. And then she spent a few more years driving to Florida State’s Panama City campus, three days a week, 1.5 hours each way. And now to Tallahassee.

“If I were going for history or psychology, I would be like, ‘It wasn’t worth it,’ ” she said. “It’s worth it if you're pursuing something where you know you're going to get a return on it.”

Her husband, Reid, spurned college like his dad, becoming a plant operator for Gulf Power, then a lineman.

That’s a familiar path for young men in rural areas. But it becomes a tricky equation in places with few thriving industries. Higher education often means leaving without a clear way back.

Camerin wants to become a rural lawyer, to stay and work in Holmes County for the rest of her life. She can’t see herself living any other way, any other place.

***

A few days before the Hardee Senior High School homecoming game in the Florida heartland, teenagers shuffled along the lacquered gymnasium floor, stacking brochures at a college fair.

Outside, orange groves laden with hard, green fruit lined the two-lane highway to the school. Clods of dirt from tractor treads dried in the hot breeze, which smelled of straw. Next door to the school was a dormant rodeo. Close by, a phosphate mine.

Hardee, about an hour and a half southeast of Tampa, ranks near the bottom of Florida counties in certificates and degrees. Fewer than 10 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have one. That number isn’t growing.

“What’s the GPA that you need to get in?” a girl in a purple shirt asked meekly of a University of Florida admissions rep who was straightening Gator-shaped postcards. Even as the rep was explaining that there’s a range, that UF looks at applicants holistically, Savannah Giddens was drifting away.

“This is like my dream college, but I’m not gonna get in because I’m not in the top 10 in my class,” she lamented to a friend. The UF rep sighed. In places like this, he hears preemptive defeat a lot.

Jared Rickett, 17, in a blue baseball cap, wandered up to a UF engineering table and told the woman there that he’s interested in agriculture, maybe a career in the orange groves. His dad works at the county prison, his mom in child-care, and he likes small-town life, but his parents want more for him, so he’s considering college.

“Have you started your application yet?” the woman asked.

“No,” Jared mumbled while she stressed the all-important essay.

Jared kept circling the gym, past booths for the University of South Florida and Universal Technical College. He collected pamphlets, then a fresh-faced Air Force recruiter waved him over.

“Who wants to go to college?” Lt. Mario Mendez asked a small group, and Jared raised his hand.

“Anything you can think of, the Air Force has it,” Mendez said, rattling off the starting pay of $55,000, a world of opportunity, and Jared smiled. With his phone, he took a picture of the young pilot’s business card.

***

Jose Alvarez grew up in a trailer in the poor north Florida town of Jennings, son of a Mexican farmworker.

His high school, with rock-bottom ratings and new principals each year, hosted no college fairs. Its sole guidance counselor, he said, was just trying to get students to graduation.

At home, Jose and his sister cleaned the house, boiled beans, wrapped eggs in tortillas. Jose handled the bills for his dad, and when neighbors needed an English speaker at the pediatrician, he went. When they went out for milk and got caught at an immigration checkpoint, he posted bail.

His dad never let Jose work. Education was the path to a career spent in air conditioning, not the sun.

“I want you to get us out of poverty,” his dad told him.

Jose decided he’d be a doctor, make big money.

He took all three available Advanced Placement classes: literature, environmental science, government. He mirrored the path of a wealthier classmate, joining Beta Club and running for student body president. When she applied to the University of Florida, he did, too, even though his teachers said it was a long shot.

Then UF offered him a massive scholarship for students whose parents didn’t go to college. It sounded too good to be true, so he took that letter into school, just to be sure.

“Someone believed in me,” he said.

He struggled with culture shock and impostor syndrome walking UF’s campus, surrounded by pep-rally blue and orange. He wondered why he was there, 90 miles from the dirt roads of Hamilton County, and at a school where the median family income breaks $100,000. His family couldn’t afford a cell phone at first, so he Skyped friends from his Walmart laptop. He felt so much pressure to succeed that he tried to train his mind: It’s OK if you have to go back home to community college.

He didn’t want to be a doctor, he realized, and finally allowed himself to change his major. He graduated last spring.

Now 23, Jose lives near the university and works for Take Stock in Children, coaching low-income students toward college.

He and his sister also work with students in their hometown, ignoring their old teachers, who once told them, “If you get out, stay out.”

Those kids have no one to look up to, he said.

His dad still lives in the same trailer, drives the same 1995 Chevy, orders the cheapest thing on the menu. He hasn’t been able to retire yet, but with Jose’s help, that day inches closer.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.

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