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Colleges counteract a lack of public confidence in higher education with outreach

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Towns in rural Vermont faced lots of challenges - housing shortages, struggling downtowns and too little disaster preparedness. College students are stepping up to help, though. From The Hechinger Report and Vermont Public, here's Liam Elder-Connors.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: KTP mobile home park in Bristol, Vt., is nestled in a convenient place - right next to the high school and about a mile from the small downtown. And it's affordable. The monthly lot rent is $375. But a recent windstorm hit the park hard. KTP property manager Chris Ouelette pointed to a home in the park with plywood nailed around the bottom.

CHRIS OUELETTE: It looks like they just had to replace some skirting. We have a roof that was ripped off a house over there. We have a couple sheds that have been lost.

ELDER-CONNORS: Ouelette, who's in charge of rent collection and some park maintenance, tries to keep the budgets manageable for the 96 mostly low-income residents. But with more extreme weather, Ouelette says mobile home parks need help.

OUELETTE: It's very challenging because we don't have the people. The funding also is not there to be able to have - you know, have more staff on board to be able to tackle these bigger projects.

ELDER-CONNORS: The University of Vermont is stepping in. UVM senior lecturer Kelly Hamshaw, along with her students, are helping KTP and other parks tackle overdue projects, like assessing flood risk and developing emergency plans for when natural disasters strike.

KELLY HAMSHAW: So when you're knocking on people's doors and saying, hi, I'm a student from the University of Vermont, people would be like - they'd look at you a little perplexed at first. And then, you know, what do you want to know?

ELDER-CONNORS: UVM isn't the only college doing this. Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Wisconsin received money from the same federal program that funds UVM's work. Glenda Gillaspy at the University of Wisconsin says they're setting up weather stations to help cranberry farmers time their harvests, which involves flooding their fields.

GLENDA GILLASPY: Farmers need to know when to do that because it freezes here in Wisconsin. And so you want to have the perfect time for the berry.

ELDER-CONNORS: These initiatives might bring an added benefit of rebuilding trust in colleges and universities. Polling by Gallup found a decrease in Americans' confidence in higher education. Joe Guinan is president of The Democracy Collaborative, a national organization that encourages this kind of outreach. He says colleges need to find ways to be part of public life.

JOE GUINAN: It begins to put them in a different relationship to the community and then gives them some defenders when their political adversaries come for them, as come for them they will and will continue to do.

ELDER-CONNORS: University officials say restoring trust in higher education isn't the primary reason they're doing this work. In Vermont, residents in rural areas like Lisa Mitchell are glad that UVM is making the effort. Mitchell runs a theater in Middlebury. And recently, UVM pulled together economic impact data that helped her secure a half-million-dollar grant.

LISA MITCHELL: Honestly, I think without the information that UVM provided us, it would have been a tremendous struggle for us to understand what that impact is or even to have the basic data to be able to craft our narrative.

ELDER-CONNORS: UVM officials admit there is another potential benefit - keeping young people in Vermont. They say tackling projects in rural places could show students that there are towns outside of Burlington with strong communities and professional opportunities. And that might give them a reason to stay. For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors in Bristol, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "LOST MY MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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