Against the grain: a student’s choice

Ryan Bergerson, a senior at Lac qui Parle Valley High School in Madison, Minn., is the last of three siblings to leave his small-town family home. But first he must choose between the University of Minnesota and Southwest Minnesota State University in Mar

Robert Downs

MADISON, Minn. âÄî When Ryan BergersonâÄôs acceptance letter arrived from the University of Minnesota in December, his parents waited to give it to him until after the holidays âÄî they were worried that his sisters, who were visiting from the Twin Cities, might convince him to go there.

Ryan, 18, said his parents are worried about the cost. At a different school he has guaranteed financial aid. But his parents said moneyâÄôs not the biggest concern: TheyâÄôre worried about culture shock.

âÄúI think itâÄôs too many people,âÄù said Dave Bergerson, RyanâÄôs father. âÄúIâÄôve heard itâÄôs way too spread out, not easy to get around from place to place. I just think it would be too much.âÄù

In an area where everyone knows one another and business owners close their shops for Friday night football games, jobs that were once accessible now require a college education.

And whether itâÄôs a person like Ryan, whoâÄôs interested in kinesiology, or one of his friends that want to work on a farm, more and more kids from rural schools like Lac qui Parle Valley High School have to leave town and study if they want to come back and work.

âÄúSome do find their way back, and they want to have their kids grow up in the area âÄî itâÄôs a wonderful area,âÄù said district superintendent Renae Tostenson. âÄúThereâÄôs just not enough jobs.âÄù

Times have changed

Cindy and Dave Bergerson were born and raised in the area and settled in Madison, a town of 1,551 and the self-proclaimed lutefisk capital of America. Dave started as a delivery man and worked his way up to salesman in his 25 years at Madison Bottling Co., a local Anheuser-Busch wholesaler. Cindy is a loan officer at United Prairie Bank.

Dave did it all without a college education, and Cindy worked her way up after attending a nearby junior college.

ItâÄôs a different story with their children.

RyanâÄôs oldest sister went to Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and the other went to St. Cloud State University. After graduating and living in the Twin Cities, theyâÄôve been encouraging Ryan to go to Minneapolis.

Although lately more rural students are coming to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, students from outside the seven-county metro area have been underrepresented. Less than a quarter of University students come from outside the metro area, despite the fact that 46.3 percent of the MinnesotaâÄôs population lives outstate.

Losing kids to jobs

Sports, especially football, tie the towns of School District #2853 together. The eight small towns each have hometown heroes, but they cheer the Eagles on together.

But each year, fewer kids come through the district. K-12 enrollment has been steadily declining since the early 2000s.

More people from around Madison have been leaving rural areas for jobs in larger cities, and many plant their families there. The population in Madison decreased 12.5 percent from 2000 to 2009.

More rural students from across the country are going to cities to work and study, said Fred Schmidt, director emeritus at the University of VermontâÄôs Center for Rural Studies, and the population decrease in Madison could be for a similar reason.

Agriculture has always been an economic driver in Lac qui Parle County, and one in five men in the county is a farmer or farm manager, according to City-Data.com.

And for those that want to be farmers, sticking around home isnâÄôt good enough to guarantee a job.

âÄúMost corporate agriculture depends on highly specialized training, which means going off to college,âÄù Schmidt said. âÄúIf [kids from rural areas] find jobs, theyâÄôre going to be in the service sector and theyâÄôre not appealing, like working at Walmart or flipping hamburgers at McDonaldâÄôs.âÄù

A different path

In the past few years, following the crowd for high school graduates at Lac qui Parle has meant going to North Dakota State University or an area technical college. But RyanâÄôs a big Gophers fan and he wants to cheer for Division I sports. Plus, he said he isnâÄôt âÄúoutdoorsyâÄù and wants to play intramural basketball or dodgeball.

âÄúIâÄôd guess that 50 percent of my friends will end up coming back here to live,âÄù Ryan said. âÄúBut I donâÄôt hunt, I donâÄôt farm, I donâÄôt do things around here like they do.âÄù

Ryan now has to decide if heâÄôll try to fit in with a student body of more than 52,000 at the University of Minnesota or take his parentsâÄô advice and go to SMSU Marshall, three times closer and with scholarships waiting.

His parents say theyâÄôll support him no matter where he goes, and heâÄôll be making the three-hour drive for a second visit to the Twin Cities campus this weekend.

âÄúIf I had to choose right now, I think it would be the U,âÄù he said.

âÄîJoe Michaud-Scorza contributed to this report.