In rural counties, a higher percentage of adults have college degrees than in the past. But the increase has lagged in the South and West, while graduation rates have increased faster in the Northeast and the Midwest.
The percentage of adults in rural communities with college degrees has nearly tripled since 1970, but the college-going rate in rural America, 15.4 percent of adults, is still well below the national average of 27.9 percent.
The distribution of college graduates across rural America is hardly even, however. The map above shows the percentage of college graduates among adults (those over 25 years old) in rural counties and counties with small cities. (Small cities have populations between 10,000 and 50,000; the blank areas in the map are metropolitan areas.)
Blue counties have a higher percentage of college graduates than the rural average of 15.4 percent. Orange counties are below the overall rural average. (Click on the map to see a larger version.) On the next page you can find the 50 rural counties with the largest percentages of adults with college degrees and the 50 with the smallest percentages.
Mark Partridge, a rural economist at Ohio State University, says the regional differences in college graduation rates have increased in recent years. Partridge said his studies have found that rural counties in the South and West didn’t fare as well as rural counties in the Midwest and Northeast in attracting college graduates. Even though the Sunbelt has seen tremendous growth over the past few decades, the South’s rural counties haven’t kept up in terms of attracting adults with college degrees.
But the problem of keeping college graduates in rural America is a national issue and one that is also longstanding.
University of Missouri economist Judith Stallmann said this is a reflection of the kinds of jobs that are available in rural communities. If there are fewer jobs demanding college degrees in a community, there are likely to be fewer college graduates.
“It’s a big deal in a lot of rural counties because you don’t see a lot of jobs that require a college education,” Stallmann said. Young people graduating from high school don’t see many jobs that demand a college diploma, so they don’t think about about coming home once they leave for the university.
“One of the problems that rural areas face is that in order to get a college education, young people have to leave,” Stallmann said. “Once you leave, that introduces you to other opportunities that you might not have seen had you not left.”
There can be a “self-reinforcing cycle” in rural communities, Stallmann said — young people leave to gain higher education, they don’t come back after college because there aren’t jobs that demand such education, and their absence diminishes the chances that more of these kinds of jobs will be created.
Rural counties and small cities now have the same percentage of adults who have some post high school education as do urban areas. Stallmann sees this as a sign that “there are perhaps more jobs in rural areas that require post secondary education but not college.”
Both Stallmann and Partridge said the data on college education rates told them that rural communities should consider the kind of jobs being created locally.
“Rural communities may need to think about the types of jobs” being created, Stallmann said. “There are some communities that are doing things like getting local businesses to put an emphasis on hiring local kids who got a college education.”
“It really suggests that rural communities that aren’t thinking about making themselves attractive to educated people are really going to suffer,” Partridge said.
Here are the 50 rural counties, and those with small cities, that had the largest percentages of college graduates among residents over 25 years of age. We also show the percentage change in college graduates since 1970.
And here are the 50 counties with the smallest percentages of college graduates.
Roberto Gallardo is an assistant extension professor at the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. Bill Bishop is co-editor of the Daily Yonder.