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Can a College Help Save a Rural Coal Town?

The Weekly Dispatch
A Fragile Future
Craig, Colo. Photo by Matt Stensland for Chalkbeat.
Craig, Colo. Photo by Matt Stensland for Chalkbeat.
If you happen to know Craig, it’s probably because of the dinosaurs. Tucked into the northwestern corner of the state, the frontier city of 9,000 is less than an hour from Dinosaur National Monument. Otherwise, what defines Craig is coal. But that’s about to change.
We got to talking with Jason about Craig because he’s examining how jobs are changing across Colorado—and what’s being done for the people and places who risk being left behind. In rural communities like Craig the local college looms large. 
Can it retrain residents? Can it help diversify the economy? Can it help a region reimagine its future?
“Craig’s a mirror for other rural areas,” says Jason, who covers higher ed for our partner Chalkbeat Colorado. He recently went to Craig and talked with people about their future. It feels fragile. 
The coal plant that’s been there since the late 1970s is slated to close by 2030. Hundreds of jobs will disappear. The governor has promised that rural communities like Craig won’t be alone as the state transitions to renewable energy.
But Colorado’s plan for redefining local economies leaves out some key details — things like how much money, exactly, the state will provide and where they will find it, especially now, in a pandemic-challenged economy.
With some state money, and with some of its own, Colorado Northwestern Community College is adding programs in areas like cybersecurity, nursing, and paleontology, all with the goal of helping Craig create a new, diverse jobs base.
A Rich History
I talked with Jason about what struck him about his reporting in Craig:
Why Craig? What made you decide to go there?
When I started digging into career education in Colorado, I found so many stories about community colleges trying to adapt to meet the needs of high-demand jobs. But Craig always stood out because of the state’s timeline to pull back its use of coal as an energy source.
What did you learn that surprised you?
I was truly tickled about the stories of Butch Cassidy roaming the desert and canyons in northwestern Colorado. The city might be small, but it has a rich history.
What’s at stake?
Places like Craig persist because the lifestyle actually gives you something you don’t get in an urban center. You get quiet, open space. You know your neighbors’ names. These places matter because, sure, they’re a throwback to our Old West frontier life, but there’s a sense of peace and freedom there that you can’t find in a big city. 
+ Read Jason’s story here. It’s the second part of a series about job training in Colorado. His first story, about how the state is failing adults, is here. Read that, too!
Elsewhere on Open Campus
In Mississippi, Molly Minta looked at who benefits from the state’s financial aid programs. Here’s how she summed it up: 
“Essentially, Mississippi is spending almost half of its strained financial aid budget on programs that disproportionately benefit students who are likely to go to college regardless of whether or not they receive state support.”
In Pittsburgh, Naomi Harris examined what choosing a college means for high-school seniors who can’t visit campuses amid the pandemic.
In Santa Cruz, Nick Ibarra profiled Alexandra Rocha-Alvarez, a Yale University student now learning from her Watsonville, Calif., apartment — the same home her parents leave each morning to pick strawberries. At Yale, she says, she’s probably one of the most underprivileged undergraduates. At home, she says she can’t stop thinking about how lucky she is.
And in Cleveland, Amy Morona looked at what it means to run a career office when job postings for people with bachelor’s degrees are down sharply.
This semester, conversations center on encouraging students to focus on the present. Remote internships and jobs, which she previously looked at skeptically, are a realistic option now. There’s more dialogue on how to prepare for video chats. Mock interviews and resume workshops are done via Zoom.
Dead Man Teaching
This fall, another group of art-history students at Concordia University were captivated by lectures from François-Marc Gagnon. Just one problem surfaced when a student tried to contact him — Gagnon had died in March of 2019.
The story — which briefly lit up social media — seems to mostly stem from some poor communication by an online-course company and the university, not some bizarre attempt to create Weekend at Bernie’s, the MOOC edition. But it does hint at more complicated thoughts about the nature of teaching, especially online. That’s what Jeff Young explores in his EdSurge podcast this week: Is It Still Teaching When the Professor Is Dead?
All of this builds on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s story from January.
Joshua Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, told Jeff:
“I’ve heard this joke before in meetings. Like, ‘If I die, are you still going to use these videos?’ And so I guess we’re seeing what happens when you take that to the extreme.”
Spotlight
Michigan's small liberal arts colleges are in fight for survival
A drive to increase enrollment at Albion College was successful in bringing more students to campus. It didn’t solve Albion’s problems.
 
 
 
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