If you travel to the rural Ozark Mountains, you may be surprised to find one of the most dynamic postsecondary institutions in the nation. Located in Harrison, Arkansas, North Arkansas Community College, not only offers education beyond high school for an area that has limited postsecondary options, it offers programs that provide career counseling, assistance with accessing government resources such as housing and day care subsidies, and financial literacy and management training to individuals and families across the rural region it serves. NorthArk is just one example of the ways in which community colleges can help build an infrastructure of opportunity in non-metropolitan communities across the South.
Indeed, for many communities in the rural South a two-year college is the only postsecondary institution in geographic proximity to local residents—and as such, it can, or at least should, play a driving force in improving the economic health of a region. Among other activities this can mean preparing a region’s current and future workforce for job opportunities in the area or helping students pursue higher education opportunities elsewhere.
Of course, the challenge, like all those facing rural communities, is daunting. How does a community college fulfill its traditional role of preparing students for work if there is a lack of good jobs in the area? A recent analysis by the Daily Yonder showed that job growth in the nation’s rural communities is anemic compared to its urban counties: “The number of jobs in the nation’s largest metro areas (those with a million or more people) increased by about 2 percent, or 1.3 million jobs from June 2016 to June of this year. In all rural counties, however, job growth was a bit more than a tenth of that rate, 0.29 percent, or about 60,000 jobs.” And educational attainment in these counties remains far lower than in urban areas. The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that “the share of the rural working-age population (adults ages 25-64) with a college degree [including an associates degree] or higher was 14 percentage points lower than in urban areas.”
But if the South has traditionally held one educational advantage over the rest of the nation is the sheer number of community colleges in each state. In most Southern states, these two-year institutions’ reach is far and wide including in rural areas. Take a look at the counties with the highest poverty rates in each of the 13 states (in every one but Virginia, it is a rural county); in most cases, a community college provides services at a location within a 30 mile drive of the county seat. (Of course, rural transportation can in many cases make even that distance daunting).
Poorest Counties in the Rural South and Access to Community College
Source for poverty rate: US Department of Agriculture
Of course, not all community colleges are created equal and success requires leadership with the foresight and fortitude to respond to difficult challenges. But throughout our work, especially recently as we work with rural places across the South to build an infrastructure of opportunity, we remain convinced that these dynamic institutions at least hold the potential to address some of the biggest challenges facing rural communities.
We see a variety of roles that community colleges can, and in many cases do, play in assisting in improving the economic vitality and potentially increasing the economic mobility of rural communities.
Community colleges prepare individuals along the school-career continuum
The traditional role of preparing individuals, no matter what age (the average of a community college student is 29), for entering the workforce is of course at the core of any postsecondary institution’s mission. And increasingly, an associates degree is required to get a job that requires a family-supporting wage. For example, in a report on the Arkansas labor force commissioned by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, we found that 84 percent of openings that pay a family wage will require at least an associates degree compared to only 21 percent that require an high school diploma or less. Effective community colleges prepare students for either the workforce or to transfer to four-year institutions. And increasingly community colleges, including those in rural areas are working with their K-12 systems, to make sure students are prepared for the challenges that students will face when they enter the world of postsecondary education.
Community colleges partner with industry to train new and incumbent workers
Of course, preparing students for a job if there is no job to be found in a community is inherently problematic. Effective community colleges operate in constant contact with local industry to ensure that they are meeting the stated demand for skilled workers. And it is important that industry’s role not just be traditional industry advisory boards that meet once a year to listen to a PowerPoint presentation about programs at colleges. Effective institutions remain in constant contact with industry to understand their current and projected needs, along with getting the data support they need from state systems to understand industry growth patterns to see where new opportunities may rise.
And community colleges not only work with individuals who are entering the workforce. Community colleges can work with existing industry to train or retrain their workers to make sure their skills stay up to date. Again, getting involvement from industry at more than a perfunctory level is vital to ensure that the services offered through the college are meeting the needs of the community at large.
While the two roles described above could describe the role of any community college regardless of location, you should remember that in rural areas, these colleges are the only post-secondary institutions that serve the area. The next roles are ones that if not unique to rural community colleges are critical to building an infrastructure of opportunity for these traditionally struggling areas of the South.
Community colleges can be neutral convenors
One of the keys, if not the key to building an infrastructure of opportunity in a community is building effective community partnerships. But to build an effective partnership, a region needs a leader that is generally trusted by the broad community (residents, government, non-profit and private sector) and can have the capacity to rise to the challenge. And in many rural places, community colleges are the only institution that fits the bill.
When MDC rolled out its recent report on economic mobility in North Carolina, we traveled to communities across the state to not only report our findings but to start the conversation on how to create an infrastructure of opportunity. In each rural area we traveled to, we engaged with the local community college to contact a wide variety of individual to attend and participate in a real way in a new effort aimed at community change. An outside entity like MDC or even a less trusted or known local institution would not have commanded the response or participation did our community college partners in places as varied as rural Central North Carolina or the foothills of Appalachia.
Community colleges can provide access to more than educational resources
One of the most important roles that community colleges play in rural areas especially is reaching beyond just the students they serve to provide resources to the surrounding population. And continuing education is just one role that these colleges can play that might be lacking otherwise Let’s just look at two examples: improving a community’s residents fiscal well-being and its health.
Community colleges provide financial management and financial literacy training and support to communities where these services may not be offered. Phillips Community College and several other rural colleges in Arkansas, for instance, provides a wide range of services to both students and the community at large. These services can be as simple as learning to budget already tight finances to steering students and community members to needed public benefits that they otherwise not have been aware.
These institutions can also have a real impact in a region’s quality of life including enhancing health outcomes. For instance, MDC’s Healthy Places NC program through a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, is working with seven community colleges across the state to develop new strategies to improve healthy outcomes across rural North Carolina. Community college projects include offering a telemedicine site in rural McDowell County in the western part of the state and building walking trails on a campus in Beaufort in far Eastern NC campus that can be used by all community residents. In addition, community colleges often host health care navigators who can sign up not just students for health insurance but community residents as a whole.
The above four roles are broad and a lot can fall under these categories. And as stated, not all community colleges are able to provide these services to their residents. Many community colleges that serve rural areas have difficulty attracting the leadership and faculty necessary to meet their full potential. But as with all the challenges facing rural communities, there is great potential to rise to the occasion.
Does your community college meet the needs of rural communities in your portion of the South? If not, what are the barriers you see? Are they local or state in nature? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
I finally got up the courage to do it. For six months, I had heard about the book rising to the top of the best sellers list and raising the hackles of my fellow rural policy advocates. So I borrowed a friend’s Audible account (shh no telling) and listened to Hillbilly Elegy. Enough has been written about this at times elegantly written but extremely problematic book to take up the entirety of this blog’s existence but what disappointed me most about JD Vance’s memoir was the sense of hopelessness it conveyed about non-metropolitan America. Mr. Vance’s own journey to success is indeed a powerful story of the importance of how personal mentorship and personal perseverance can lead to individual success. But for me it’s biggest failure as a work is its pessimism–the doubt it consistently casts on the ability of rural communities like his own to enact real change. Times may seem dark for our less populated communities, but that doesn’t mean that the solution is to give up—these places have assets, that if tapped into, can revitalize a portion of our country that for too long has been neglected.
At MDC we believe the key to change in any community or region is building an infrastructure of opportunity, and the rural South is no exception. As we say in our 2016 report on economic mobility in North Carolina this means “the myriad systems that must be improved and aligned to prepare ever larger numbers of [individuals] for family-supporting work and a better shot of economic well-being.” This may look different in rural areas than it does in large cities, but it is the key to sustained, shared, economic prosperity. Of course, in rural areas the definition of immediate success or improved economic well-being may be different than in urban areas with more apparent paths to prosperity. Rural areas may, for instance, need to connect young people to jobs outside the region with the long-term goal of creating an economic environment that encourages their return.
Our past work in rural areas is helping us understand what an infrastructure of opportunity might look like in rural communities and importantly what non-metro areas consider a pathway to success. Whether it is addressing rural leadership, improving health outcomes, or addressing job quality, organizations and philanthropy in rural regions are making real efforts to enact effective change in their communities. For instance:
- A health conversion foundation in Danville, Virginia working with a group of young adults to create as path forward for a small city that saw its manufacturing base disappear.
- Rural community colleges in North Carolina developing new programs and services to meet the health needs of not only their students and faculty but also the surrounding community.
- Communities across Arkansas embracing the challenge of “Expecting More” out of their communities and demanding that their economic fate not be tied to low-wage work.
- Wilkes County North Carolina building on its history of entrepreneurship by bringing together businesses, the local community college system and the schools to create to education to career pathways.
The strategies described above not only show a variety of approaches, they show the diversity of the rural South. The challenges of isolated communities in Eastern Kentucky are often extremely different from those better connected to urban centers such as counties just outside the Research Triangle of North Carolina. And of course, as always issues of race are important differences across our region—the demographic make-up of the Ozarks of Arkansas is far different than a few hundred miles away than the Mississippi Delta.
Let’s look at health in rural communities as one example. Each year County Health Rankings analyzes data from every county in the US. In each of the South’s 13 states the worst health outcomes (including how healthy people feel while alive and length of life) were in rural areas.
The table below shows each state’s county with the worst health outcomes for rural counties in the South alongside its racial make-up and its connectivity to urban areas. You can see that nearly all white Grundy County, Tennessee with no city faces equally poor health outcomes as Robeson County, North Carolina, which contains a small city and an extremely diverse population.
Counties in Southern States Ranked Last
by Health Outcomes and Health Factors
Note on rural classification: According to the US Department of Agriculture, “completely rural” means an urban population less than 2,500, “small town/city” means an urban population between 2,500 and 19,999. “Small city population” means a non-metro area with an urban population larger than 20,000. “Metro” refers to a county classified by USDA as a metropolitan county
Source for racial demographics: US Census, American Fact Finder. Racial percentage included if category is more than 5 percent of the population. In Duval County (TX) the white population includes those who do not identify themselves as Latino as well
Beyond health, an even broader indicator of well-being and prosperity (economic mobility) is often worse in rural areas. Take a look at Wilson, North Carolina a small city that lies just outside in the prosperous Research Triangle Region. Data from the Equality of Opportunity Project show that of children born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution in the Wilson commuting zone, 40 percent will stay there as adults, another 32 percent will only move up one quintile, and only 3 percent will make it to the highest quintile. The graph below shows this in reality in stark detail:
Wilson, NC Commuting Zone
Indeed, according to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, of the ten lowest mobility rural counties in the US, nine were in the South.
Despite these challenges, MDC believes that there are ways for rural communities to build an infrastructure of opportunity in regions and communities that are too often left behind In our next post, we’ll look at the critical elements of an infrastructure of opportunity and how they are could be addressed in rural communities. In every case, we want to emphasize the importance of developing and implementing strategies that are rooted in place—just as there is no one solution for the challenges facing big cities, there is no panacea for non-metropolitan areas. And, we will also be looking to you—what does success in rural areas look like? For instance, is it the goal for all rural areas to find high wage jobs with career pathways for their young people in the town in which they grow up if those types of jobs are few and far between? Or is it to prepare them to find these opportunities elsewhere with the hope that they will return? Not easy questions to answer. Some of those critical elements are:
- The role of community colleges in enhancing rural growth
- Engaging employers and the business community.
- How social disparities in health can impact economic mobility and how systemic change can address it.
- National, state and local philanthropy’s role in creating systemic change
- How communities are addressing creating a trained workforce that can find better jobs in communities that often have seen those very jobs disappear.
- Creating partnerships between businesses, schools and non-profits to ensure that the entire community benefits from any economic advancement.
Increased attention on rural America should not mean that we must choose working in this part of our country over addressing the real challenges facing metropolitan America. It does mean that some of the same systemic change applied in our larger cities may also be possible in our less populated areas. We’re looking forward to a deep discussion with you as we explore these issues.
These Monroe community work session participants say #NCMobilityMatters because connection = success!
Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina and how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that intergenerational poverty is particularly dire in the South compared to other U.S. regions. We’ve documented several community work sessions discussing the findings from that report here on the blog. As we crossed all of North Carolina’s prosperity zones, we saw unique challenges facing rural and metro areas, but we also witnessed similarities.
Take the community work sessions that were held in Monroe and Wilkesboro. Monroe is a growing city, part of Union County (which has a significant rural population), on the edge of the Charlotte metropolis. Wilkes County is a rural county on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its population spread across 757 square miles. But in both places, we were hosted by a North Carolina community college and the local Chamber of Commerce served as a key partner. One place is trying to find a way to restore or reimagine a manufacturing economy; the other is looking for ways to encourage participation in the advanced manufacturing opportunities that exist. Both are grappling with limited public transportation systems and affordable housing options that would ease the burden on families trying to make ends meet and get ahead.
In each community work session, we’ve asked people to share their mobility stories. We ask them to think about how their starting point affected where they ended up, and to consider what people or policies or simple serendipity cleared a path or propelled them to their current situation. The same elements showed up in Wilkes County and in Monroe (and nearly every other work session):
- Adults—often educators—who “believed in me”
- Personal drive
- Military service and the GI bill
- Education (and related scholarships, including athletic opportunities)
- Public policies (like war bonds) that allowed people to save and transfer wealth
The headwinds faced were also similar, including public policies that were not available because of discriminatory practices. These shared experiences are a great example of how systems and aspirations intersect. In order to make the elements of an infrastructure of opportunity pervasive and available to more people across North Carolina, communities must find ways to cultivate aspirations and institutions that are launching pads for the enormous potential that exists in our residents. It may seem a daunting challenge, but as Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, said “we’re not afraid of a fight and we’re ready to move forward, ready to tackle the problems we have. We’re ready to get about the business of solving those problems. We need to look forward.”
Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthening the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC held enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence. The new superintendent of Vance County Schools, Dr. Anthony Jackson, participated in those discussions. Jackson was featured last week in WUNC’s series on rural schools, Perils and Promise. In his interview with Leoneda Inge, Jackson spoke about how his personal experiences influence how he sees his students:
Coming from DC as an individual, growing up in what I considered somewhat of a desperate situation, in what people call the projects of Washington, D.C., I’ve learned that it’s truly about helping children close what we call the ‘opportunity gap.’ And having them understand that because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Today, the opportunity gap in Vance—and surrounding counties—is stark. Parts of Granville and Franklin counties have become bedroom communities for the Research Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—part of the halo of one of the fastest growing metros in the U.S. The labor markets of the areas blend together, potentially creating more diverse job opportunities for residents. But Vance and Warren counties, while not impossibly far for determined commuters, retain their largely rural character. After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances of upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 18 percent of adults in Vance County and 20 percent in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher.
In Vance County Schools, 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and the 2013 graduation rate was 65 percent, much lower than the state average of 83 percent. In parts of the region, many affluent families have enrolled their children in private schools. In this environment, young people growing up in low-income families aren’t getting much positive reinforcement from the community. “Being poor doesn’t relegate you to being unsuccessful,” says Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Smart Start. Young people in the community need to know that their future matters and that the community wants them to succeed.
“Too many people seem paralyzed by past failures—we aren’t spending enough time lifting up current success stories,” says Dr. Jackson. In his view, this mindset is the first thing that needs to change. So, along with other leaders in the region, the superintendent is committed to changing the conversation about student success. “We are waiting for some magic bullet program, but it’s really about building the capacity of our parents, about teaching them how to advocate for their kids to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences,” he says. Since he started as superintendent, he looks around and sees students, parents, and teachers who are trying in spite of difficult circumstances—and he sees many who are succeeding. He wants to make sure all students receive the support they need, even those who don’t match what people imagine as a “typical” successful student.
To begin that shift toward more collective concern for community well-being and expanded aspirations, strategic improvements in the education-to-career continuum are being made. Several new programs to provide students with additional pathways to career success are underway: two career academies, one focused on medicine and another on fire and public safety, as well as an alternative high school for students who were not successful at the county’s other high schools. Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC) has partnered with the local school systems to establish early-college programs in each of the four counties. Students enroll at the start of high school and graduate with a two-year degree, or college credit, within five years. The community college also links to nearby four-year institutions to ensure students have an array of degree options and clear academic pathways; through a partnership with North Carolina Central University, students can complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice on the VGCC campus.
These pockets of innovation and excellence show what is possible for the future. But the region still needs strong collaborative leadership to organize around a vision for the future economy. Local leaders must continue their work to change the conversation about poverty and who is likely to succeed. “We can’t allow poverty to be an excuse for not providing opportunity,” says Dr. Jackson. Changing that mentality will take inclusive planning strategies so that the region’s people share ownership of a vision for educational and economic success.
Abby Parcell contributed to this post.
On this blog and around the office at MDC we talk a lot about economic mobility and the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for many low-income young people. In one of our recent meetings on this topic, I mentioned that it is easy to falsely conflate the low-income student population with the low-achieving student population. Just as there are high-achieving wealthy students, there are also high-achieving, low-income students. A recent longitudinal study from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that high-achieving low-income students are as likely as affluent students with below average test scores to complete a college degree.
This conversation reminded me a study I read years ago about gifted students living in poverty. The authors of the study followed a young, gifted student named Jermaine who lived in a poor county in Alabama. In the study community, “Pine Grove,” all students are African-American and 98 percent of them are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Jermaine’s school had a leaky roof, no gym, and no art or music rooms. The school district was consistently on the list of schools to be taken over by the state’s department of education. The names of the people and places studied were changed to protect the participants’ identities, but this study could be talking about any number of communities across Alabama. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation; one in four children there lives in poverty.
The authors followed Jermaine for the span of three years, his 3rd– to 5th grade years. They reviewed a portfolio of Jermaine’s work, observed Jermaine in and out of school, and corresponded with Jermaine and his teacher, Teresa Beardsley. When the study first began, Jermaine lived with his mother, older brother and sister, and an aunt. His family lived in a house, but in his community, homes were inferior to trailers that came with central heat and air conditioning, furnishings, and appliances. Jermaine knew his family was considered to be in the lowest rung of the social circle in Pine Grove: other students had expensive sneakers, while Jermaine’ mom gets his sneakers from Bargaintown. Jermaine got teased a lot.
Jermaine’s performance in school was considered “remarkable”; he was creative, had an advanced vocabulary, and very high achievement scores. However, his intelligence was not cultivated at school; he was bored and became a discipline problem. Administrators and teachers alike described him as “bad”; someone to “keep an eye on.” His teacher, Ms. Beardsley, found that she often had to serve as an advocate for Jermaine.
His mother did not play an active role in his schooling, but he had two uncles from Detroit who brought him toys and paid for his uniforms when he needed them. Jermaine was supported by friends’ families and the football coach who, recognizing the young boy’s intelligence, made Jermaine his starting quarterback. Jermaine gained friends by sharing the books he received from his uncles and, of course, the acclaim that comes with being the school’s quarterback. He dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but explained that he wanted to be a Hollywood film producer first. We never find out if he achieves this dream.
Even though Jermaine’s school offered opportunities for athletics, they did not offer access to gifted and talented programs or other programs that could have nurtured Jermaine’s creativity. Study authors detailed that rural, gifted students face without access to these types of activities:
…within rural school districts acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change made it difficult to initiate new programs for gifted students. Along with limited financial resources for programs perceived as benefiting a few students, rural schools were unable to provide adequate specialized teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and curriculum specialists to assist in providing appropriate services for high-ability youngsters. (p. 202)
Inadequate funding for poor, rural school districts perpetuates the acceptance of the status quo. In July 2015, EdBuild released a map of student poverty rates for 13,000 school districts. They found in many cases, “school districts of dramatically different income levels are next-door neighbors, or even sit, island-like, within one another.” And in many Southern school districts, there is significant variation in student poverty rates between schools. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.
I’m glad that Jermaine’s story has remained with me all these years. It puts a face to all those data points. Jermaine is a creative, caring young man who wants to thrive despite his circumstances. As we try to figure out solutions to improve educational opportunity for low-income students, it’s important that we don’t forget there are thousands of other students like Jermaine. Poor students can be smart, too, but our educational system is still failing too many of them.