Rural communities pay a price when economic development overlooks them. They also suffer when educational opportunity bypasses them.
Rural high school graduates are the least likely to head off to college. College enrollment rates among 18-to-24-year-olds in U.S. cities, suburbs and towns all exceed 40%. But for rural young adults, the rate is 29.3%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Young adults in cities have the highest college enrollment rate, 47.7.
Two studies released this week provide insights into the rural lag.
While most students in suburban and affluent areas took college admissions tests, a University of Virginia study found teens in smaller, rural districts and low-income communities were less likely to do so. In looking at scores on benchmark tests of those students who didn't take the SAT, the study identified some who would have scored high enough to qualify for Virginia's top public campuses.
Yet, these promising students didn't take the tests that would have put them on the path to those select public schools and on the radar of other campuses.
While the study focused on Virginia, only 37.6 percent of students in rural Georgia take the SAT or ACT. Georgia has the nation’s fifth-lowest rural graduation rate, according to the report “Why Rural Matters,” by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rural School and Community Trust.
Another new study this week found gaps in college attainment by both race and geography. “A college education is still among the most important tools to achieve economic prosperity, but degrees are not distributed equally across the country,” said Colleen Campbell, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress and author of the new report.
“While a greater number of Americans have a college degree than ever before, more than 60 percent of adults still have not earned one. When we take stock of college attainment nationwide, we can no longer overlook the role of place in who has access to college and goes on to get a degree,” said Campbell.
Her study found that 92% of bachelor’s degree recipients live in urban/suburban areas. And rural counties are home to just 14% of the nation’s college campuses, despite covering 97% of U.S. land area.
That matters, said Campbell, because proximity influences college attendance; 56% students at public four-year colleges grew up less than 50 miles from their campus, and the median community college student travels eight miles to get to school. While there are regional and community colleges, those schools often lack resources and range of offerings of flagship campuses.
The economic decline of rural America will not be solved by expanding higher education alone. In a telephone interview today, Campbell said states, including Georgia, have to "spread the wealth" through government policies that push industry to invest in rural communities and workforces.
The goal is not only to increase educational opportunities for rural students, but enlarge the supply of good-paying jobs waiting for them back home so they don't have to relocate to metro Atlanta.
Campbell said rural families worry if they send their children to college, they'll move away. Many end up leaving because they can't find lucrative work. Rural areas need high-quality jobs so students aren't investing in credentials to earn $7.50 an hour, said Campbell.
An American Institutes for Research study found graduates with associate’s degrees from community colleges in rural areas earned lower starting wages than counterparts in towns. cities and suburban areas. In explaining the gap, the study cited “the preponderance of low-paying, low-skilled jobs in rural areas.”
While Georgia and other southern states have favored low taxation, Campbell said a consequence has been a disinvestment in rural regions, which now trail metropolitan areas in quality of education, life and jobs.
"We have had wage stagnation in this country for the last 20 years," said Campbell. "Even when young people go to a four-year or community college, they feel the wages they are offered in their own communities just can’t sustain them with the debt they have or with the lifestyle they would like to have."