The Corner


Can Higher Ed Solve the Woes of Rural America?

Many of our rural communities are in severe decline, with young people leaving, jobs disappearing, and a feeling of hopelessness settling in. Can higher education do anything to reverse course?

That is the question Shannon Watkins explores in today’s Martin Center piece.

She looks in particular at a number of initiatives in North Carolina. For example, there is a bonus for graduates who take teaching jobs in an officially depressed county. A few probably take the money and teach for a few years in a depressed area, but having some younger teachers isn’t likely to make any difference.

Watkins considers the possibility that higher education is a big part of the problem for rural counties, by luring away the brighter and more ambitious students. They have created a “brain drain” for rural counties. Once young people get a taste of life in a college town, they are not likely to want to return to their homes.

That’s a trend we have been facing for decades.

One hopeful sign is that in at least some of these areas, there is a resurgence of economic activity, such as in textile manufacturing. That is good, but higher ed is not a factor in it.

In the end, Watkins is skeptical about claims that higher education can rescue rural America: “It may take something stronger and deeper, some major unforeseen event that brings the middle class back to the small towns. Or, perhaps, some form of spiritual rebirth will lift the existential gloom and spread of social pathologies. But until events prove otherwise, hope may be best tempered with realism.”

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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