In rural America, too few roads lead to college success

Here’s a surprising fact: Students from America’s rural communities graduate from high school at rates higher than the national average. Fully 80 percent of them finish 12th grade, just a shade below the 81 percent who graduate from more prosperous suburban schools. Making up about 14 percent of the school-age population, rural students also score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than do students in cities.

And then something goes wrong.

Residents of rural communities attend college at rates remarkably lower than those in both urban and suburban areas. Just 19 percent of rural Americans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with an average of 33 percent nationwide. Right after high school, 59 percent of rural residents go on to college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared to 62 percent of urban graduates and 67 percent of suburban graduates. When rural students do go to college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, they are more likely to drop out.

Numerous obstacles have historically kept rural residents from earning degrees and other credentials beyond high school. And many of those obstacles are the same ones facing low-income urban populations: The blue-collar jobs that awaited them didn’t require a degree; their parents and other relatives hadn’t gone to college; their K-12 schools, chronically short of teachers, left them unprepared; they have problems with money, child care, and health.

But there is one substantial difference between rural high school graduates and their urban and suburban counterparts: Rural students lack access. According to the Urban Institute, about 41 million adults live 25 miles away from the nearest institution of higher learning. And 3 million residents of these “higher education deserts” lack broadband internet.

Population dwindling

Rural areas continue to suffer steady declines in population, particularly among the young and educated. A third fewer people live in rural areas today than did in the 1950s. High-paying, skilled jobs increasingly tend to cluster at the coasts, where skilled workforces and urban amenities already exist. Meanwhile, rural areas are eager to attract new businesses as industries such as farming and mining decline and as manufacturers continue to shut down or move overseas.

To expand their economies, rural communities need more skilled and educated workforces. Some rural communities have been successful in attracting new plants and, especially, warehouses. The health care sector continues to grow, as sometimes does the business of alternative energy. But these employers, too, need more skilled workers than these areas now supply.

And it goes the other way. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, rural counties also lag other types of communities, especially urban counties, on key measures of employment of so-called “prime-age” workers—those 25-54 years old. In rural areas, just 71 percent of these workers are employed, compared with 77 percent in urban and suburban counties. Recent census figures show that the number of employed prime-age workers has declined in rural areas, while rising in suburbia and in cities.

Rural America is overwhelmingly white—about 80 percent—but the rural deep South is characterized by a substantial African American population. (The population of South Carolina is nearly 30 percent black; Mississippi, nearly 40 percent.) And throughout the nation, a growing number of immigrants make rural America home. Some 20 percent of rural Americans are now Latino, and the majority of American Indians, who have exceptionally low rates of post-high school attainment, live in rural areas.

Wherever rural Americans call home, transportation is often a significant obstacle to continuing an education. Many isolated miles can stretch between home and school—and public transportation in these areas is virtually nonexistent. Also, in poor communities, a reliable car is hardly a given.

Online education is often cited as a solution to the transportation issue, and it does bring higher learning to many at a fraction of the bricks-and-mortar cost. But here, too, infrastructure comes up short. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of rural Americans cite limited access to high-speed internet in their area, and half of those called it a “major problem.” (Considerably more nonwhite residents called it a “major problem” than did whites.)

It’s a touchy subject—one that invites charges of negative stereotyping—but researchers also say they’ve found distinct differences in attitudes about higher education in some rural communities. Older residents ask: If they didn’t go to college, especially far away to college, then why should their young people? According to the Pew survey, just 71 percent of rural white men think college is worth the investment; among urban white men and suburban white men, the figures are 82 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

Justifiable skepticism

At least some of this rural skepticism about college-going is perfectly understandable, said Kelly Wilson Porter, an Indiana-based higher education consultant whose recent work has focused on rural students. “After all, ‘brain drain’ is real,” she said. “It’s easy to see how some communities view higher education as a threat to their chances of retaining their young people. For them, college often leads to a loss of local talent.”

And the students themselves have their own, quite reasonable doubts. “Going to college is not a slight leap of faith for many rural students,” Porter said, “because it is especially intangible to them—both as a place and as an ideal stepping stone to a better life.”

It’s counterproductive—and just wrong, Porter says—to counter this skepticism with charges that rural communities are backward-looking or that rural students devalue or oppose higher education. “The real barrier,” she said, “is that higher education doesn’t seem to be working for them, specifically—as rural people. And because it isn’t working for them, we all lose. We’re wasting a lot of potential in huge swaths of the country.”

Rural higher education has lacked the attention it deserves, advocates like Porter say, precisely because the population is so dispersed. Unlike in urban areas, where solutions can be more easily tested and results seen, the problems of rural America are diffuse. Reform efforts are difficult to scale.

Policymakers and philanthropies—including Lumina Foundation, which has funded Porter’s work—are focusing their strategies through a commitment to equity. That has essentially been defined as improving circumstances for African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and low-income people. To these groups, advocates would add rural Americans. They are calling for a separate field of practice, study, and investment. They want “equity of place,” while acknowledging that rural residents don’t suffer from the same longstanding racism and discrimination as African Americans.

The stories that follow explore four rural regions—the far-north country of California, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, southeastern Indiana, and a slice of South Carolina—that are pursuing innovative ways to help more of their residents, whether younger or older adults, get college-level learning and earn credentials. Three of the sites have earned designation as Talent Hubs, communities that have shown the capacity to significantly boost education attainment through broad community collaboration (see accompanying box).

The four sites vary widely in geography and culture, and their approaches to the problem differ. But all share a commitment to tackling the problem regionally, and all share a compelling sense of urgency that experts say is vital. The rural-urban educational divide—the persistent gap in attainment between rural students and their urban and suburban peers—must be closed, they say. And soon.

“You can only ignore this problem for so long before there are side effects,” Porter said. “And we are there.”


Navigating the North State

California’s far-northern tier belies the state’s image as a mecca of wealth and privilege. In fact, with adult poverty rates above 20 percent, this vast rural expanse faces a host of social problems—including poor health, housing insecurity, and drug addiction. But community leaders across a five-county area see the path to progress, and they’ve teamed up to broaden that path for northern California residents. As one leader of North State Together points out: “It all came down to education.”


Standing tall in Texas

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is the fastest-growing region of a booming state—and that presents challenges. Among the biggest: preparing residents for skilled jobs that are cropping up too fast to be filled. This education challenge is particularly acute in south Texas, where the distances are vast, the heritage rural, and the people quite poor; nearly 90 percent of valley residents are considered economically disadvantaged. But an area network called RGV FOCUS is attacking the problem in force.


From ‘The Corridor’ to Clemson

The rural regions along Interstate 95 in South Carolina have long been called the “corridor of shame.” The name stems from a 2005 documentary that showed how decades of grinding poverty and governmental neglect essentially doomed area residents to a Third World education. Progress is still slow along the corridor, but it’s occurring—and a Clemson University program called Emerging Scholars is part of the change.


Climbing the Hoosier hills

In tiny Switzerland and Crawford counties in southeast Indiana, only 17 percent of adults have earned associate degrees (compared with 38 percent for the state overall), and a significant number lack even a high school diploma. Until recently, there were few places where area residents could go to advance their learning. But that’s changing, thanks to a coalition of organizations working to expand educational opportunity in the region: the EcO Attainment Network.