Education Deserts a Fact of Life

Rural Americans are much less likely to go to college than their urban counterparts. Is there a solution?

The rural-urban divide on higher education is getting worse and contributing to polarization. What to do about it is far from obvious, however.

One in three Montanans lives more than 60 minutes from the nearest college campus. The tracts of land that separate these individuals and institutions are sometimes called “education deserts,” and they cover many patches of rural America. Add to that the fact that nearly 40 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen attend institutions fewer than 50 miles from home, and these statistics begin to sketch the outlines of a crisis.

The high-school education gap actually narrowed between 2000 and 2015—now students are just about as likely to attain a high-school diploma whether they live in a rural or an urban environment, according to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture. But during that same time period, the college-completion gap has widened. “The share of urban adults with at least a bachelor’s degree grew from 26 percent to 33 percent, while in rural areas the share grew from 15 percent to 19 percent,” the report found. The gap could be due, in part, to students leaving rural areas after college—or to adults with college degrees moving to urban or suburban areas in search of jobs. Regardless, the gap has grown by 4 percent.

“We need to take seriously the idea that everyone deserves access to a quality education, and we need to do everything we can to make that a reality,” Tara Westover, the author of the memoir Educated, said onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “There’s all kinds of evidence to show that education is wildly unequal,” she said, “and as we allow that to continue, we’re just seeing the beginning of our political turmoil.”

-RouteFifty, “The Education Deserts of Rural America

My first instinct here is that, if you’ve chosen to live in the middle of nowhere, you should expect to have to travel to access goods and services. Montana is the fourth largest state in the union by territory; it’s forty-third by population. It’s simply not going to be able to provide the easy access to higher education of, say, California which is only slightly larger in size but has thirty-nine times the population.

But, of course, Montanans having a harder time getting to college has consequences for the country as a whole.

Her comments harkened back to the research that has been done on the diploma divide between Republicans and Democrats since the election of President Donald Trump. In the 2016 election, 66 percent of non-college-educated white voters voted for Trump, compared with just 48 percent of white voters who did have a college degree. That trend grew during the midterms. At the same time, and perhaps relatedly, there is an urban-rural split, with voters in major cities almost unfailingly voting for Democrats and voters in more rural areas leaning toward Republicans. But those who live in rural areas tend to be stereotyped as white people who voted for Trump, which neglects the diversity of people and thought there. As a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis revealed, 29.5 percent of all Native Americans live in education deserts, dotting rural areas across the country.

What, if anything, should we do about it?

Online education is sometimes touted as a solution for education deserts, but a rural student seeking an online degree is more likely to run into infrastructure problems. As a report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, showed, “only about 63 percent of people in rural areas have broadband internet access in their homes, compared with 75 percent of people in urban locales.”

Having made my living in face-to-face teaching for a number of years and having some experience with online education, I’m dubious that it’s a good substitute for the on-campus experience. (My fiancée, who has a doctorate in education and specializes in online pedagogy, disagrees but acknowledges that it’s harder to deliver a quality education online.) Regardless, living in the middle of nowhere also makes it harder to access high-speed Internet.

Another potential answer is to encourage states to invest in higher education—placing more good, affordable options in places that need them. But if the trend of state disinvestment in public higher education holds, that may prove fruitless. Alaska’s governor, for example, cut $130 million from the state university system’s budget on Friday; coupled with previous cuts, the state system has lost 41 percent of its state-supported budget this year.

The decision in Alaska, which is rich from oil revenue, was cynical: the governor simply decided that he’d rather distribute more money to residents from the energy profits rather than invest in education. That college graduates are more likely to vote for the opposition party likely paid a part in that calculation.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a Montana or South Dakota vastly improving access to college. The economics just don’t make sense. It’s hard enough to provide primary and secondary education in rural states.

The truth of education in America, as Westover noted, is that “some people are going to get a lot of it, and others are going to get a little.” It’s hard to see those dynamics changing without rebuilding—and in some cases, building for the first time—an infrastructure to support the students who have been left out.

I don’t know what the answer is. The most obvious solution would be to further federalize education and provide some sort of scholarships to allow promising students from rural areas to go to college elsewhere. Perhaps the federal taxpayer could make up the difference between in- and out-of-state tuition. Or small, rural states could band together to fund quality universities and treat all students from the consortium as in-state residents.

But, of course, rural voters and the politicians they elect are reflexively against these sort of solutions.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Daniel Hill says:

    Or small, rural states could band together to fund quality universities and treat all students from the consortium as in-state residents.

    Montana, along with fourteen other states (including my home state of Colorado), participates in a program called the Western Undergraduate Exchange. Out of state students pay 1.5 times the in state tuition.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Daniel Hill: That makes sense. I know a lot of states do that sort of thing. It’s obviously still harder for a kid in Billings to move to Boulder than a kid in Boston to drive to one of a dozen or more schools. But it’s a more reasonable solution than expecting every ranch to have its own college.

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  3. Lynn says:

    Why is college the only option? The trades are also important.

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    I went to college, Univ of Illinois, four hours from home. They had dorms. I drove past two other colleges to get there. I don’t think distance is the issue compared to costs, which have gone up considerably, and desire.

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  5. Console says:

    @Lynn:

    I’d imagine that the issue is the same. Would you rather be a plumber in a city with lots of customers, or in the middle of nowhere? And a place without a lot of secondary education, probably doesn’t have a lot of apprenticeships either.

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  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    The share of urban adults with at least a bachelor’s degree grew from 26 percent to 33 percent, while in rural areas the share grew from 15 percent to 19 percent

    For comparisons, the percent of native born Blacks with degrees is 16.3% and the percent of native born Latinos with degrees is 9.8%. So rural whites are still better off than urban minorities.

    This article fits a rather annoying “genre” of commentary that’s become popular recently: rural whites elect Republicans that cut taxes, causing themselves to fall behind on infrastructure. When this has negative consequences, they want to whine that taxpayers in Democratic areas aren’t subsidizing their low taxes, while at the same time decrying similar subsidies to even worse off urban minorities as socialism.

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  7. Teve says:

    Alaska’s governor, for example, cut $130 million from the state university system’s budget on Friday; coupled with previous cuts, the state system has lost 41 percent of its state-supported budget this year.

    pfft book-larnin’s for queers.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    For comparisons, the percent of native born Blacks with degrees is 16.3% and the percent of native born Latinos with degrees is 9.8%. So rural whites are still better off than urban minorities.

    Your data doesn’t support that conclusion: you’re comparing all blacks and Latinos with rural whites. There are Latinos and, especially, blacks in rural areas.

    This article fits a rather annoying “genre” of commentary that’s become popular recently: rural whites elect Republicans that cut taxes, causing themselves to fall behind on infrastructure. When this has negative consequences, they want to whine that taxpayers in Democratic areas aren’t subsidizing their low taxes, while at the same time decrying similar subsidies to even worse off urban minorities as socialism.

    While that no doubt happens, this article isn’t an example of that. Rather, government researchers and private authors are pointing to a problem.

    Westover has an interesting background. According to her own telling, she was

    Born in Idaho to a father opposed to public education, she never attended school. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. Taught to read by an older brother, her education was erratic and incomplete. She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. After that first encounter with education, she pursued learning for a decade, graduating magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008 and subsequently winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014.

    She’s not whining; she did what others of her background were exceedingly unlikely to do.

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  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Your data doesn’t support that conclusion: you’re comparing all blacks and Latinos with rural whites. There are Latinos and, especially, blacks in rural areas.

    79% of the people in rural counties are white vs. only 44% of people in urban counties

    Conversely, 80% of blacks live in urban areas

    While that no doubt happens, this article isn’t an example of that.

    Not an intentional example, anyways.

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  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    She’s not whining; she did what others of her background were exceedingly unlikely to do.

    You’re right, she’s not whining. She moved to New York City.

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  11. Dave Schuler says:

    Before we get too exercised about the percentage of people who graduate from college, we might want to look at the percentage of people who graduate from high school. That would seem to me to be a good starting point.

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  12. KM says:

    “The share of urban adults with at least a bachelor’s degree grew from 26 percent to 33 percent, while in rural areas the share grew from 15 percent to 19 percent,” the report found. The gap could be due, in part, to students leaving rural areas after college—or to adults with college degrees moving to urban or suburban areas in search of jobs. Regardless, the gap has grown by 4 percent.

    Other then the fact society has decided you need a bachelor’s degree in order to flip burgers, what exact is wrong with this? There’s a difference between “educated” and “has a college degree” – hell, there’s a difference between “educated” and “intelligent” that people like to forget. What do you do in rural areas that *needs* a degree? No, really, what?

    This is society pushing the idea that college is necessary to achieve a minimal level of success to a ridiculous degree. All it’s doing is burdening the younger generations with crushing debt and zero jobs in exchange. It used to be a degree got you a nice, cushy office job with a pension and benefits – now you need a BA to do be an hourly Associate Shift Manager at Walmart! Of course there are “education deserts” in rural America – everybody who can leaves to get a job ASAP and everyone who’s left either does something that doesn’t need a degree (yet) or is on the dole. Exactly how many Masters’ degrees should be in a one-horse town, anyways?

    I am all for educating anyone who wants it. I believe knowledge is power and education in particular is a way to escape a dead-end town. We should be offering free or reduced fee online courses to anyone who wants to learn basic skills be they rural or urban. But complaining there’s not enough degrees is a worthless metric that’s frankly a little elitist. Plenty of folks can have a degree and not get a job because they’re “over-qualified” – think about how many jobs are in a small town and how that situation would work out for you. What’s the point of 4yrs of college to come back to the choice of McDonald’s, Walmart or the local gas station?

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  13. grumpy realist says:

    Sorry, no sympathy. You might as well whine that you don’t have the equivalent of the British Library next door. Sometimes you gotta travel to get what you want.

    It would be good, however, if more trade schools and community colleges existed in rural areas…also rather than using high school for babysitting we actually taught to the higher standards they used to have back in the 1890s….

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  14. Teve says:

    the higher standards they used to have back in the 1890s….

    As a math tutor/teacher for ~20 years I’d be entertained by this. ‘How many half-dimes will your wagonload of buckwheat earn, assuming 8 pottles to the bushel?’

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  15. SKI says:

    Interesting, to me at least, observation regarding the comments in this thread and especially the prior one(s) on the proposals regarding the cost and loan burdens of higher education: Lots of folks on this forum claiming higher education shouldn’t be as widely accessible as it is today and we should do more with trades.

    Can’t help but think that their tune with respect to their own progeny would be different. While college and advanced degrees aren’t for everyone (my oldest, for example, will be highly unlikely to ever attend even community college), I know damn sure that having a college degree or better yet an advanced degree dramatically raises the chances that someone will rise up to and through a materially higher standard of living.

    Similarly, while liberal arts are derided as “Ivory Tower” and “Basket Weaving”, they are, IMO, the best path towards the type of skills needed to rise up in management – problem identification, issue analysis, and the ability to communicate and persuade are essential skills in terms of managing people.

    Of course, I’m a coastal elite from a tradition of higher education so…

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  16. michael reynolds says:

    Urban Area = bunch of stuff.

    Rural Area = not much stuff.

    It’s kind of in the definition, isn’t it? I’m sorry but there is no world in which people living 1 to a square mile have anything like the available stuff of people living 10,000 to a square miles. It’s physically impossible. This, my rustic goober friends, is why we like cities.

    And do they really want education? Rachel Maddow did a devastating analysis of hard science paid for by us that is being squelched by the Trump administration lest the yahoos discover that climate change is real and is incidentally going to have a major impact on agriculture. Climate change is going to be way tougher on some farmer or rancher than on the average New Yorker. Do the rustics want to hear that? Do they want to learn science and philosophy that will make them doubt their religious faith? Nope. They’ve chosen to stay in the intellectual black-out zones, they very often actively despise anyone not in one of those zones, so quite frankly, fck ’em.

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  17. KM says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Sorry, no sympathy. You might as well whine that you don’t have the equivalent of the British Library next door. Sometimes you gotta travel to get what you want.

    Seriously. The whole point of rural is that it’s not urban. It’s the damn countryside with all that’s ever implied. @Stormy has a point – this is another one of those “why doesn’t the middle of nowhere have the same quality of life as the big city” like the 5G thread. “One in three Montanans lives more than 60 minutes from the nearest college campus.” Gee, could it be because MT is wide open land in many places and the nearest town can be an hour away, let alone a college? How many people have to drive 1hr+ to work every day but it’s considered the suburbs and not a “job desert”?

    Listen, if you live in a rural area, your idea of “far” is a lot different then someone who measures distance in city blocks. In congested areas, it may take an hour to get 2 miles and be frustrating as hell because you could have walked that. Out in the sticks, an hour to get to anything may just be a normal part of life because that hour actually gets you the 60+ miles the speed implies. When your way of life means you have to travel over 10 mins to get the nearest sub place / gas station, the distances in this article start to get farcical.

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  18. steve says:

    I would look at state support of education in those states with large rural areas, like Montana. If they, like Alaska, are not willing to commit spending towards education (they want lower taxes) then I would oppose federal support to bail them out (moochers).

    Steve

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  19. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Let’s stipulate that it is a problem. I’m going to speak from the perspective of someone who is a full time instructor at a community college whose service area spans multiple counties and whose northernmost campus is a two hour drive from its southernmost campus.

    For the majority of technical programs, like welding, commercial truck driving, physical therapy assistant, and dental hygiene, the cost to set up a learning site is high, the learning must be done in person, and the number of qualified instructors willing to work for community college pay is limited. All of these constraints limit you to either one or two learning sites per program in a district whose service area is roughly a 125 mile x 125 mile square that is traversed primarily through state highways and county roads.

    You have no choice but to force the students to come to you. So you either set up the sites in a population center, where you can get enough students on a regular basis to keep the program alive and running and also have enough employers to give them field experiences, or you pick a central geographic location (or two), so that everyone has a somewhat manageable travel time. We’re fortunate that our district’s two population centers are also roughly in the middle of the service area, about an hour away from each other. But that still leaves our more rural students with an hour or more drive, depending on which program they want.

    For academic programs, it is fairly straightforward to run online courses, but, as noted, they are less useful to most people, and it deprives the students of tangible things like a robust set of course offerings (how do you teach a Chem lab or an A&P online in a meaningful way? what happens if the only online section of a course you need in order to satisfy a prerequisite for an entire chain of upper division coursework is only offered in the Fall and is full by time you register?) and the ability to have a dialogue with your Instructor in real time to work through thorny topics, as well as intangibles like interaction with fellow students, networking opportunities, and feeling part of a community.

    You can set up Interactive Video Conferencing centers in the more remote locations (which we have), but there is a limited number of IVC-enabled classrooms, and an instructor still has to drive from their home campus to each one of them to run labs sections in person. If you have a full time instructor driving two hours each way to each one of three remote learning centers to run lab sections for Chem or A&P (since the probability that you can find someone local who a) has a master’s degree in the content area, b) is able to run a three hour lab once per week during a work day, and c) is willing to do it for community college part-timer pay), that person’s course load is quickly taken up by a course that might only have five students in it at each location, which makes the economics of the course challenging (to say the least) when you are charging community college tuition rates for those lab courses.

    Needed to throw this out there as I am sitting at home calculating course grades for the twelve-credit-hours-worth of four-week Summer I courses I just got finished teaching.

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  20. KM says:

    @SKI:

    Can’t help but think that their tune with respect to their own progeny would be different.

    Don’t have progeny but back when I was practicing I definitely pushed kids towards trades instead of college. Most kids are there because they were told they have to be, not because they want to or need to. Many of them were going to go to incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt they wouldn’t be able to pay off till they were 50+ if they were lucky, all to get a degree they wouldn’t actually use in their job. Meanwhile, a plumber or electrician can make a ton of money with relatively little debt incurred in their training. When you take out the social stigma of working class jobs, it’s kind of a no-brainer for a kid that didn’t particularly like school in the first place. Why should they need to rise through the ranks in a cube farm when they can be their own boss in a small, successful business?

    Again, I’m all for education for anyone that wants it. But we really, really need to decouple this crap that a degree makes you “more managerial material”, especially if we’re funneling kids like cattle through college. The more people that get the degree, the more general it becomes and the less it signifies a specific skill set. The entire point of a degree was to signify specific skills and achievement in an area aka a specialist. Do you know what they call the guy that barely passed med school? Doctor, same as the guy that aced it all. At this point, all that piece of paper signifies is you met the criteria to graduate, not that you really learned any skill like critical thinking or problem analysis.

    It’s an outdated 50’s notion that society refuses to give up on. Boomers were told school would give them better lives and passed it along like gospel to their kids, who now are religiously pushing their own into college without stopping to think the world might have changed. Soon, BA’s will be as common as high school diplomas and then what? Requiring Masters’ for entry level jobs? It’s already happening and is frankly absurd. The idea that working in a cube is inherently better and higher paying then working with your hands is a notion that’s coming under fire too. Millennials are getting a lot of crap for questioning this way of life because the idea that being a wage slave chained to a desk that maybe, *maybe* could be a manger someday is better then being a sanitation worker or plumber is nuts.

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  21. SKI says:

    @KM:

    . But we really, really need to decouple this crap that a degree makes you “more managerial material”, especially if we’re funneling kids like cattle through college.

    As a hiring manager who actually interacts with leaders, I don’t think it is crap. I can tell the difference between someone who majored in a classic liberal arts area and one who didn’t.

    I’ll take an English, or philosophy or history major over one who majored in computer science, or media or chemistry every single time. They can actually analyze, write and communicate.

    Give me someone with the right attitude and aptitude who has been trained to think and communicate and I’ll show you someone who will rise up quickly and be an amazing asset. I’ll take them every single time for a position that has a career path.

    It’s an outdated 50’s notion that society refuses to give up on. Boomers were told school would give them better lives and passed it along like gospel to their kids, who now are religiously pushing their own into college without stopping to think the world might have changed. Soon, BA’s will be as common as high school diplomas and then what? Requiring Masters’ for entry level jobs? It’s already happening and is frankly absurd. The idea that working in a cube is inherently better and higher paying then working with your hands is a notion that’s coming under fire too. Millennials are getting a lot of crap for questioning this way of life because the idea that being a wage slave chained to a desk that maybe, *maybe* could be a manger someday is better then being a sanitation worker or plumber is nuts.

    Nice rant but misplaced and non-responsive to what I actually said.

    I agree that college isn’t for everyone and there is nothing wrong with working with your hands. BUT I also know, from actually living in reality, that if you want your kid to be on a career path towards financial success, you want them to get the right training and paper.

    Now, you can argue, effectively and accurately, that it isn’t “right” that so many jobs require the right “paper” but that is the reality today. And, to my initial point, for my children, I want them to have that opportunity.

    People can be wildly successful without it but it is a far rarer and riskier path.

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  22. KM says:

    @SKI:

    that is the reality today. And, to my initial point, for my children, I want them to have that opportunity.

    Today is not tomorrow. There was once a time (not too long ago actually) when high school education was rare and was seen as the big stepping stone towards “a better life”. In order to get a good job and have wonderful opportunities, you needed to finish high school. It was the mark of the middle-class and a sign of potential upwards mobility.

    Now, it’s so ubiquitous that getting a GED has stigma attached because it’s a “catch-up diploma”. To not obtain a high school education in any form is so unthinkable there’s laws about it. It’s no longer an achievement but an expected requirement. We are on a path to make bachelor’s degrees essentially meaningless in the next decade or so. College, instead of being a mark of higher education and evidence of “right training”, is now becoming “just what you do”. We’re pushing kids into crippling debt just to stay baseline.

    I’ll take an English, or philosophy or history major over one who majored in computer science, or media or chemistry every single time. They can actually analyze, write and communicate.

    I think this is a more function of who chooses to go into the major then the major itself. Someone who’s more literal-minded is going to gravitate towards chemistry because of the nature of the material. Someone who’s got great people skills is more likely to lean towards something that involves people instead of code.

    Then again, programs like computer science are *training*, not *education*. They’re imparting specific subject matter and not on how to convey information about said subject to someone else. Classical education is great for being well-rounded but a Chem degree expects you to be a chemist, not a public speaker. Different beasts for different labors. The problem we’re having its we have more people with a degree like Chem in jobs where its essentially useless because people keep pushing their kids into college. Flood the market and it dilutes it’s worth.

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  23. grumpy realist says:

    @KM: the other fact is that if you are interested in staying in your home town of 500 out in the middle of nowhere, you’re far more likely to be able to earn a living if you’re a plumber or an electrician rather than getting a college degree.

    We’re going to have to figure out what we’re sending kids to college for. Is it in order to get training for a career, or is it another four years of babysitting and conspicuous consumption on the part of the families while their little darlings live high on the hog, or is it simple credentialism because “all kids should get a university education” and because too many companies are bog-lazy and it’s easier for their HR departments to simply put “need a degree” rather actually look at what the job entails?

    (This is why I’d shove as much as I could back down to the high school level. Being able to analyse and clearly communicate should be skills that everyone has by the end of high school, forget college.)

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  24. SKI says:

    @KM: I’m not sure we are actually disagreeing here rather than making different points.

    Yes, there are kids in college who shouldn’t be there.
    Yes, trade schools are a valid path for some/many.
    Yes, we could, and should, de-emphasize degrees for certain jobs (though, to the extent they are career path jobs, I can see why a company would want to hire someone who can proceed along that path rather than be capped out until they go get the degree.

    However, I’m still betting that most posters here would say, despite agreeing with the above, that they want *their* kids to go to college and keep open the highest number of paths towards success.

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  25. Sleeping Dog says:

    A few things: 1. The rural residents most effected by this problem, didn’t choose to live in rural areas, they were born there. 2. This is a problem that didn’t exist 50 years ago, since there were good paying jobs and on-the-job training for willing employees in rural areas. The changed economy has brought this to a head. 3. The US once was willing to undertake huge infrastructure programs to benefit rural America, e.g. the Rural Electrical Administration. The States were as well, witness the thousands of miles of farm-to-market roads built in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s across the mid-west.

    The biggest change in America and a root cause of many of the economic and social issues that we face, is the unwillingness of the country to invest in the common good. Today we worship at the alter of faux individualism and the belief that markets should solve all problems. Of course the history of the US makes a lie of these current beliefs.

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  26. SKI says:

    @grumpy realist:

    (This is why I’d shove as much as I could back down to the high school level. Being able to analyse and clearly communicate should be skills that everyone has by the end of high school, forget college.)

    As society progresses, adulthood gets pushed back. That has been true throughout human history.

    As the father of three (G-d help me) high schoolers, the reality is that many/most aren’t ready to be trained in that type of thinking yet – or at least only beginning to be.

    Very few of us are in the jobs we imagined for ourselves when we were in high school – or even college.

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  27. Console says:

    @KM:

    Why should they need to rise through the ranks in a cube farm when they can be their own boss in a small, successful business?

    Because most people just want to punch a clock, do their job and punch out. Blue collar and white collar drones alike. The drive and self determination to run a business is absent in most people. There isn’t a social stigma on the trades. They’re just legitimately hard work and most people would rather work in the AC, sitting down. Instead of hearing a bunch of people that don’t want to be plumbers themselves talking about how great being a plumber is.

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  28. KM says:

    @SKI:

    I’m not sure we are actually disagreeing here rather than making different points.

    As society progresses, adulthood gets pushed back. That has been true throughout human history.

    Yep. I love the idea of a Classical / Critical Thinking / Life Skills basic degree aka high school year 5 or 6. Quite frankly I think the only think stopping it from becoming mandatory is you become legal in the middle of it and we have this weird thing about forcing adults to learn. I despise that it’s life-ruining to young adults to acquire skills they should have been trained in via high school. It really should be free in the way high school is free – tax payers foot the bill for a more educated future workforce to get good enough jobs to continue the cycle.

    However, I’m still betting that most posters here would say, despite agreeing with the above, that they want *their* kids to go to college and keep open the highest number of paths towards success.

    Meh, isn’t “do as I say, not as I do” an American tradition? It’s not unlike a doctor that decries antibiotic overuse in general but doses his own patients liberally. No single raindrop believes itself responsible for the flood.

    Besides, what parents *want* and what the kid actually *does* are two different things. How many parents want their kids to be doctors and learn to live with disappointment?

    Very few of us are in the jobs we imagined for ourselves when we were in high school – or even college.

    And that’s the crux of it. As @grumpy notes, we need to settle on what college is *for*. Back in the day, you went to school with the expectation your job would be in the field your degree was in. It was the rule that someone trained as a teacher would end up some sort of teacher, not a manager in an office. Now, it’s pretty damn rare to be doing what you went to school to do. You go to college with dreams of being X, spend tons of money you don’t have in the process and whoops, no X for you! Take the lower paying job and come to terms with the fact that not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up.

    Is college functional training for a career? Is college a place to refine skills like critical thinking and networking? Should one go into it expecting your major’s essentially useless to your future and the point is the process and certification?

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  29. DrDaveT says:

    @KM:

    What do you do in rural areas that *needs* a degree? No, really, what?

    Vote.

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  30. gVOR08 says:

    As has always been the case, a degree, any degree, demonstrates that you put up with a lot of arbitrary bureaucratic nonsense and did a lot of tedious work for four years. Skills valued by employers.

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  31. JKB says:

    Having made my living in face-to-face teaching for a number of years and having some experience with online education, I’m dubious that it’s a good substitute for the on-campus experience.

    Not unreasonable, but more due to your being a victim of the passivity induced by teacher-led instruction and having classes filled with similar victims. The loss of initiative in students is well inculcated after four years of formal schooling. While the initiative and skills for self-learning are purposely inhibited in students with regards to school subject. Any kid who tried has gotten the message to shut up about what they learned as they are deviating from the teacher’s lesson plan and disrupting the class. This has been documented for more that 150 years or so at least.

    If rural students were trained in self-study rather than broken to the sage on the stage, they could have far more success without a local college. As there are not more opportunities for self-study even at an early age than ever before, we may see “online” learning become more productive as the internet generation ages.

    Consider what happens in class instruction, and then how independent study differs from it. When a young person sets to work to master a lesson with the aid of a teacher there is a question of how much two persons can accomplish together. One of the two is mature, more or less informed in general, more or less versed in the principles of study, and more or less skilled in their application. The other is immature, and only under favorable circumstances willing to apply himself. As they ordinarily work, their relation to each other is well defined. In case text has been assigned, the teacher asks various questions, pushes the pupil against difficulties, points out crucial thoughts, calls a halt here and there for review and drill, supplies motive for attention by reprimanding or praising or pummeling, as the case may be, and not seldom becomes flushed in the face from exertion. In the case of development instruction in which, without the help of a text, the thought is slowly unfolded by means of question and answer, the teacher is the recognized master of the discussion. She usually selects the general topic, breaks it into its parts, and then concentrates her abilities on her questions, endeavoring to make them short enough not to require too sustained attention, simple enough to be reasonably easy, and attractive enough to be sure bait. In short, she exerts herself to the utmost to conceive questions of just the right size and quality; and, if she is very skillful, her morsels of knowledge will prove so enticing that they will be swallowed and digested without pain, and perhaps without conscious effort. In case lecturing is the method followed, the teacher is still more plainly the sole producer of thought, it being the mission of the student to listen, comprehend, and retain. In each of these cases the teacher is the acknowledged leader. Her personality, as represented by voice, gesture, and manner, is drawn upon for stimulus; she gives directions, puts the questions, and makes the corrections, or sees that they are made. If she is accounted a good teacher, she is probably more active than her pupils and grows tired first.

    Now, suppose that the teacher drops out and leaves the young person to attack a similar lesson alone. How is the situation changed? The purpose in the former case was the assimilation of the facts in the lesson by the pupil. That is still the purpose. There is, therefore, no change in that respect.
    The method employed in the former case may be assumed to be as fully in accord with the laws of the pupil’s mind as the teacher could make it. In short, the topic under consideration had to be carefully broken into its parts, and various keen questions touching the meaning and value of each had to be conceived in order that they might be considered and answered. The same mind is still present to be ministered to, so that, so far as possible, substantially the same method must be followed. There is, therefore, no important change in this respect. The purpose and the method in general being the same, it is clear that the two situations duplicate each other to a large extent. The same quantity of work must be done, and in practically the same way.

    But there is a very striking difference. When the two studied together, the teacher not only did a part of the work, but she was the leader; the pupil was a follower, doing only the subordinate part. Now, being alone, he must do the principal part, in addition to the other. He must divide his topic into parts, and conceive all the questions that are worthy of attention; in brief, he must determine the course of procedure himself, or take the initiative. Herein is found the great difference between studying with a teacher and studying alone, and it is a fundamental one. Capacity for self direction or initiation is not necessary in the usual class instruction; but it becomes indispensable the moment one undertakes independent study.

    –How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

    Theoretically, those who survive to have success in higher education have reinvented some ability of self-study. The odd question is why break the ability only to “put it back” in a select few who develop skills to break free of formal education?

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  32. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT: Push comes to shove, the economy of most rural areas depends on doctors, nurses, medical administrators, and medical technicians. Almost all paid by distant taxpayers.

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  33. Moosebreath says:

    @Console:

    “Because most people just want to punch a clock, do their job and punch out. Blue collar and white collar drones alike. The drive and self determination to run a business is absent in most people. ”

    There are also some very different skills needed to run your own business, especially marketing and personnel management, which you need to run a business as compared to being an employee. For some people (especially introverts), these are skills which are fairly hard to pick up.

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  34. JKB says:

    @KM: What do you do in rural areas that *needs* a degree?

    You are correct that in much of rural work you don’t need a “degree”, you need knowledge. There is some degree requirement for those providing professional services that require magic parchment, such as accountants, maybe even marketing. But the farmer needs knowledge more than magic parchment.

    And quite frankly, manufacturing is moving toward rural as the square footage/employee goes up making it costly to build a factory in an urban center. But it is mostly at suburban freeway/rail heads now.

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  35. SKI says:

    @Moosebreath: And don’t forget the need to capitalize the business.

    And the economic uncertainty and the risk.

    According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of small businesses fail within their first year. By the end of their fifth year, roughly 50 percent of small businesses fail. After 10 years, the survival rate drops to approximately 35 percent.

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  36. Slugger says:

    I think we are conflating two problems here. The first problem is at the individual level about deciding educational options to achieve personal success. The second problem is the governmental problem of developing the economic base of your state via having talent available. A person may decide that being the local barber is for them; while the income isn’t outstanding, the social aspects of running the town barbershop works out for a good life balance for some people. However, a state full of cheerful barbers might not be the best generator of economic growth in 2050. Once upon a time, California was primarily agricultural. They put up a very good state system of universities that had free tuition. I think this was helpful in driving their economy. Alaska has an industrial base of fishing/logging/tourism/petroleum extraction/military; their government might be right in not spending much money on tertiary education. Of course, if you are or are guiding a 14 year old living in Fairbanks, you need to think about life in 2050.

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  37. Gustopher says:

    The decision in Alaska, which is rich from oil revenue, was cynical: the governor simply decided that he’d rather distribute more money to residents from the energy profits rather than invest in education. That college graduates are more likely to vote for the opposition party likely paid a part in that calculation.

    The far right has been attacking higher education for ages, believing its indoctrination that teaches things like empathy, context, gay sex, and being a Demoncrat.

    I’m inclined to say that cutting funding for higher education (resulting in the student debt crisis we have now) has been a massive effort at social engineering. Not necessarily a deliberate conspiracy, with an evil genius cackling in the background, but a reaction to the student protests of the 1960s.

    But, the end result is that kids who want a college education leave, and South Dakota remains untouched by liberal ideas. And acres vote in the electoral college.

    Still, it’s hard to imagine a Montana or South Dakota vastly improving access to college. The economics just don’t make sense. It’s hard enough

    They need dorms, because a lot of the kids are going to be living to far away. That’s basically the only logistic problem for common colleges.

    Montana might not have the population for a specialty college. But that can be handled by states working together.

    There just isn’t a huge will to do so.

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  38. Dave Schuler says:

    Since my last comment did not receive much attention, let’s try this. Here’s a state by state analysis of the percentage of high school graduates who go straight on to college.

    A higher percentage of Mississippians and Minnesotans go directly on to college than New Yorkers. A higher percentage of Iowans and Kansans go directly on to college than Californians.

    Check your assumptions.

    You cannot arrive at the conclusions at which you are arriving based on the data cited. Just because you work in Chicago does not mean you’re an Illinoisan or went to school in Illinois. The issue could well be Iowans, Kansans, and Minnesotans who go on to college don’t remain in in Iowa, Kansas, or Minnesota. That I can believe.

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  39. KM says:

    @Gustopher:

    Montana might not have the population for a specialty college. But that can be handled by states working together.

    There just isn’t a huge will to do so.

    States like Montana are perfectly happy not paying for education and letting other states pick up the slack for them. All of this really is deliberate – a state that invests heavily enough can get a decent college off the ground if they want to in whatever part of the state they feel like. A good salary and immediate tenure would lure in some good talent right off the bat while investing in infrastructure could get auxiliary businesses like labs and medical start-ups up and running. A college nearby tends to boost the local economy but it’s literally not worth it to them. Other states have colleges – let the kids go there if they like. How the kids get there is no skin of their nose. Bootstraps, baby!

    And, as you noted, if the remainder ends up sticking the course of conservative, stuck in dying small town America and slightly-bitter-about-missing-a-chance, so much the better. They use the fact their voters are rural but they don’t really care what that actually means for them.

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  40. James Joyner says:

    @JKB:

    Theoretically, those who survive to have success in higher education have reinvented some ability of self-study. The odd question is why break the ability only to “put it back” in a select few who develop skills to break free of formal education?

    Part of education is teaching people how to continue to learn on their own, including inculcating a habit of intellectual curiosity. There are surely people out there who can simply self-teach successfully without coaching. But a structured process of learning guided by people with years of mastery of a subject—including years of self-study starting with the dissertation—is incredibly hard to replicate on one’s own.

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  41. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Lynn: Because you can’t depress wages effectively unless you have supergluts of qualified candidates–many of whom have no understanding of what it will cost to live in, say Seattle or SF, and so will see a $90k salary as “fabulous wealth.”

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  42. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Before we get too exercised about the percentage of people who graduate from college, we might want to look at the percentage of people who graduate from high school. That would seem to me to be a good starting point.

    The high-school education gap actually narrowed between 2000 and 2015—now students are just about as likely to attain a high-school diploma whether they live in a rural or an urban environment, according to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture.

    You were saying…?

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  43. Matt says:

    @KM: Indeed my hometown while rural isn’t nearly as rural as some areas being described here. The town is still a good 35-40 minute drive one way at 60mph from the closest Walmart.

    @Sleeping Dog: So much truth in this post based on my own experiences living in a rural area most of my life.

    @Stormy Dragon: Then they blame the Democrats for everything…

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  44. Monala says:

    @Dave Schuler: You’re right, some of the data is surprising. According to this data, Mississippi is near the top, behind only Connecticut and Massachusetts, in the percentage of high school graduates who attend college straight out of high school (72%). For NY, it’s 69%.

    Yet it’s near the bottom in terms of adults ages 25-34 with associate’s degree or higher (35%) or bachelor’s degrees or higher (23%), with a few of the other states in the South or Southwest being lower than Mississippi. (For NY, the comparable rates are 52% and 44%). So what’s going on here? Are students in Mississippi starting college, but not attaining degrees? Or are they moving away in large numbers after graduation? Or has there been a recent spike in college attendance in Mississippi, such that the degree attainment for 25-34 year olds will be much higher in another decade?

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  45. SKI says:

    @Monala: or do they have an abysmal record in terms of graduating high school?

    Edit: nope. Not great but not that much worse than national average. https://www.governing.com/gov-data/high-school-graduation-rates-by-state.html

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  46. DrDaveT says:

    @SKI:

    Lots of folks on this forum claiming higher education shouldn’t be as widely accessible as it is today and we should do more with trades.

    I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization. Nobody wants to reduce access to higher education; they want to reduce spurious requirements for higher education, and increase access to trades. You shouldn’t need a bachelor’s degree to work in retail; you should be able to become a plumber, regardless of background, if you have the aptitude for it.

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  47. Andy says:

    I think the data can support other conclusions besides geography being the primary factor. For example, those who live and work in more rural areas are less likely to need a college degree to make a living. For example, the rate for rural self-employment is much higher than urban areas (something like 1 in 6 people in rural areas compared to about half that in urban areas). The lower rate of college attendance could very well reflect a difference in the value that people see for education in the communities they live in. And it’s clear, to me at least, that the educational-industrial complex has largely succeeded in raising the minimum requirements for most urban work to require a college degree.

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