39.9 F
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

What A Pending Football Game Says About COVID-19, The Fate Of Small Colleges And The Towns They Keep Alive

College students infuse college towns with energy and money. But now the institutions enlivening college towns threaten to bring death. College classes, dorms and sporting events can spread the pandemic. But unless small colleges can open this fall, dozens, maybe hundreds, will likely go under, taking the lifeblood of small towns with them

Sports Headlines

COVID-19 Causing High School Basketball Schedule Changes

Even as the first high school basketball games are set to tip off later this week, changes are already announced as the Marysville home...

Jayhawks Battle Back, Take Down No. 20 Kentucky, 65-62 in Champions Classic

Courtesy of Kansas Athletics INDIANAPOLIS – Despite falling behind by double-digits in the first half, No. 7 Kansas was...

Royals sign LHP Mike Minor to a two-year deal, with a club option for 2023

KANSAS CITY, MO (December 1, 2020) – The Kansas City Royals announced today that they have signed left-handed pitcher Mike Minor to a two-year Major...

Cats Start Strong, Defeat Kansas City 62-58

Courtesy of K-State Athletics MANHATTAN, Kan. – K-State started strong and placed three in double figures to pick...

Sporting KC’s Home Playoff Match vs. Minnesota Moved To Thursday On FOX

Sporting Kansas City’s home match against Minnesota United FC in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs has been rescheduled for Thursday and will be...
Derek Nester
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids, and graduated from Valley Heights High School in May of 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications.After stops at KFRM and KCLY radio in Clay Center, he joined KNDY in 2002 as a board operator and play by play announcer. Derek is now responsible for the digital content of Dierking Communications, Inc. six radio stations.In 2005 Derek joined the staff of KCFX radio in Kansas City as a production coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, which airs on over 94 radio stations across 12 Midwest states and growing. In 2018 he became the Studio Coordinator at the Cumulus Kansas City broadcast center for Kansas City Chiefs Football.

By Frank Morris – Kansas News Service

There’s a lot riding on a Kickoff set for 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12.

The Sterling College Warriors are scheduled to take on the McPherson College Bulldogs at home. If that familiar thud of shoe against football and cheer from the stands doesn’t happen, the college that keeps the central Kansas town’s economy humming, that gives it cultural vitality, and that separates Sterling from the hollowing out that defines so many other small Midwestern towns, might not survive.

The school, after 133 years, could die and doom the town that takes such pride in the football squad and embraces the student body like family.

“If COVID defeats the athletic season this year, it will probably defeat a lot of small colleges,” said Jeb Miller, a non-traditional senior at Sterling College. “And, as a result, harm a lot of small towns. Badly.”

Small town institutions

Hundreds of small colleges dotting the country rely on students paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in exchange for a distinctive, personal, high-touch college experience.

Many of those colleges hung on year-to-year even before the pandemic. Now COVID-19 threatens to cut off the oxygen sustaining these schools, and the sports programs that drive enrollment.

But the very thing small colleges need to stay afloat — students coming in, spending money, playing sports — also poses a major risk to relatively isolated little towns that, so far, have dodged major coronavirus outbreaks.

Only about 2,200 people live in Sterling out on the flat, flat plains of south-central Kansas. But this small city boasts an almost idyllic downtown. New office buildings. Two good coffee shops. A nice grocery store, a bowling alley, you name it.

Sterling has good schools, competitive sports teams. Locals say school plays, games and concerts draw big crowds. Without the college, the money, diversity and energy that defines life in Sterling could evaporate quickly.

“There is just so much overlap,” said Kyler Comley, a Sterling College senior who’s lived in the town all his life. “The community supports the college. The college supports the community. You know, you just see how everything’s intertwined and how people are just so overly giving and involved.”

Every student attending Sterling College gets paired with a family in town. Those families speak endearingly about their adopted scholars.

The students left in March. Most haven’t come back. Like many people here, Sterling criminal justice professor Mark Tremaine said that starting classes up again in person this month is make or break for Sterling College.

“The bottom line is, we’ve got to get students back to campus. If we’re going to survive,” he said.“We have to accept whatever the risks are and do it.”

And that’s the plan. Sterling doesn’t have much of a choice.

Staying alive

“We have committed to open up in the fall,” Sterling College President Scott Rich said. “With face to face classes, face-to-face coursework, dorms and activities and full swing. But we’re committed to doing it safely.”

Rich said the school will quarantine students coming back to the dorms, test them liberally, and isolate those who come down sick in local hotels.

Rich said the freshman class looks strong, with about 200 new students. But he is desperately trying to woo 50 or so upperclassmen who haven’t signed on this year. The school needs them because, like many other small institutions, Sterling College scrapes by from year to year.

“We’re always dependent upon enrollment, always dependent upon that next year, always dependent upon persistence or retention,” Rich said. “We have to get students to come back.”

Other small-town schools across the country, and the communities tied to their fate, face the same existential crisis.

“Some of the people I know are looking at hundreds of colleges going out of business within the next several years, if this pandemic continues and if the economic devastation associated with it continues,” said Scott Carlson with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Small liberal arts colleges have been shaky for years. Enrollments have slumped, endowments have been drained. Many schools have piled on debt in a building boom fueled by competition for students.

Most offer courses online, but online classes don’t pay the bills. Small schools survive only by providing an expensive, in-person college experience. And Carlson said the pandemic shreds that business model, and threatens to trigger the higher education equivalent of a mass extinction.

“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “These colleges are unique, little entities all on their own, and each one of them provides a unique spin on higher education.”

‘Servant leadership’

Sterling College, for instance, leans heavily on a particular interpretation of Christianity. Guarding the front door of the classic, old limestone building that anchors campus is a statue of Christ — not being tortured on the cross, but humbly washing the feet of a disciple. “Servant leadership,” as anyone here will tell you, guides the campus ethic.

But Jesus doesn’t keep the lights on here. Football does.

“We do have a good football team,” said Sterling’s athletic director, Scott Downing. “They’ve been fairly successful the last dozen years and been to the national playoffs, won the conference championship.”

The team helps bring the students together, but more importantly, it drives enrollment.

“With a football team number of about 125 to 135 student-athletes, quite a bit of our student body is involved in that sport,” Downing said.

That’s an understatement. There are only about 500 students on campus in a given year, one in four is on the football team. And there are 20 other sports.

The chance to play college sports is a major selling point for schools like Sterling. It drives enrollment. But in a pandemic, sports can be vectors for disease. And Jed Miller, who’s finishing his degree at Sterling online next year, says that’s another vulnerability.

“If COVID defeats the athletic season this year, it will probably defeat a lot of small colleges,” he said. “And as a result, hurt a lot of small towns … badly.”

So, the same colleges that keep some small towns vibrant now pose a particular threat to public health.

“The college probably is the most dangerous element for us in terms of COVID,” said Kristina Darnauer, a family practice doctor in Sterling. “It potentially brings back students from all over the US who have variable levels of exposure.”

Darnauer is torn. She loves Sterling, loves the college, and fully appreciates how important it is to the school and the town that college ramp almost as normal this fall.

But she’s got patients to care for. And she said this county, with only one hospital and no intensive care unit is not ready for a cluster of coronavirus cases.

“If we have a huge outbreak,” Darnauer said, “we’re going to be out of resources very quickly.”

A new era

Small colleges and college towns across much of the country face the same worries.

But some analysts say that a pruning of universities may prove inevitable, and that the coronavirus has only sped up the thinning of the higher education herd.

“I actually see the future of higher education, broadly speaking, as entering a new golden age,” said Richard Price, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. It’s a think tank that presses for dramatic change in institutions.

Price said the pandemic may hasten the evolution to better online classes, and a public education system that’s much more accessible and equitable.

“The traditional model, it was originally for the landed elite and it wasn’t for all genders,” Price said. “It wasn’t for all races. And that is slowly getting phased out along with some older business models that aren’t pivoting well.”

And Price thinks many little colleges will adapt. Lots of them have cheated death before. But he said there’s little doubt that this time next year the United States will have many fewer colleges. Folks in Sterling Kansas hope and, yes, pray, that Sterling College is among the survivors.

Kansas Headlines

CDC Announces Shortened COVID-19 Quarantine Periods

Counties may opt in to similar guidance in Kansas TOPEKA – In conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control...

KDHE Makes No Changes To Kansas Travel Quarantine List Criteria

TOPEKA – There are no changes this week to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s (KDHE) travel quarantine list. Those needing to quarantine...

Safety Is The Secret Ingredient To Holiday Traditions

TOPEKA – With the arrival of the holidays there are many memories to be made and traditions to follow, and having children participate in...

Kansas Organizations Launch Effort to Stop the Spread of COVID-19 in Kansas

(Nov. 23, 2020) - Stop the Spread Kansas is a public awareness campaign urging Kansans to do their part in slowing the rate of...

Governor Kelly Makes $38.5 Million of CARES ACT Funding Available to Kansas Small Businesses, Slow COVID-19 Spread

TOPEKA – Today, Governor Laura Kelly announced that the State Finance Council unanimously approved the Kansas Office of Recovery recommendations to allocate $20 million...

Kansas News Service

Kansas Hospitals Seek Help From Nearby States, But The Whole Midwest Faces A COVID Surge

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen - Kansas News Service Hospitals in Colorado and Nebraska are calling Kansas in desperate search of beds for coronavirus patients. But Kansas...

Kansas Republicans Keep Their 3 Congressional Seats; Davids Reelected In Kansas City Suburbs

By Stephan Bisaha Stephen Koranda, Nadya Faulx, Aviva Okeson-Haberman - Kansas News Service Democrats and Republicans in Kansas will keep their seats in the U.S....

Republicans Keep Kansas’ Open Senate Seat By Electing Roger Marshall

By Jim McLean - Kansas News Service OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — Kansas Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall is moving up to the U.S. Senate after...

‘It Is Not Sustainable’: Kansas’ Online Teachers Are Overworked And Quitting

WICHITA, Kansas — Less than a week into the new school year, the warning came: the school district’s COVID-19 learning plan expected too much from...

Kansas Nursing Homes Still Waiting On Coronavirus Testing Gear From The Feds, And Can’t Afford Labs

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen - Kansas News Service Phillips County Retirement Center got a coronavirus testing machine this month from the U.S. Department of Health and...