To Grow the Coalfield Economy, Plant a College
How can coalfield societies prosper? How can the economies of boom-and-bust rural regions gain stability? Ask that person in the cap and gown.
Members of the first graduating class of the University of Appalachia's College of Pharmacy sing at commencement exercises May 17, 2008, Oakwood, Virginia.
Photo: Eric McCarty
The Appalachian coalfields have suffered and benefited from coal mining over the past century. The environmental impact of all forms of mining and the wanton deaths of and injuries to coal miners until federal laws finally took hold, are well documented. Debate still rages over the use of mountain-top removal mining methods to strip away thousands of acres of forested watersheds for cheaper access to coal.
The less documented downside to coal mining is its impact on communities that depend almost solely upon it for economic survival. When times are good and the demand and price for coal are high, miners and their communities prosper. When the demand for coal declines or the worldwide coal supply is glutted, coalfield communities feet the effects almost immediately. Miners are laid off, businesses that depend upon them close, residents move away and public schools bleed students and revenue. The people who stay behind own businesses or work in professions that are necessary to meet the needs of the remaining population; much of the society then consists of people without the training, education or physical abilities successfully to procure other employment outside the region.
This double phenomenon, the loss of motivated workers and their children, is referred to as the “brain drain.” It is a form of social change that has come and gone several times in all of Appalachia but seems to be most depleting in the coal-producing region. Appalachian Regional Commission statistics bear out the fact that that federal agency’s largest portion of “distressed” counties are found in the coalfields. The huge majority of school children in these distressed communities are on public assistance of some sort and rates of higher educational attainment lag well behind surrounding areas. Moreover, rates of many illnesses, harmful lifestyle habits and drug abuse well exceed national averages, and the political corruption that comes with such conditions flourishes.
The Appalachian School of Law, Grundy, Virginia
Photo: Chris Fortier, via wiki
I am fortunate to have been in a position to help establish two graduate schools in the heart of the Virginia coalfields. One, the Appalachian School of Law, is located in Buchanan County, Virginia a hardscrabble county if ever one existed. ASL is now ten years old, fully accredited, with approximately 350 students and 100 employees. Recently, a large higher education center has located behind it to accommodate expansion and a community college campus. Soon, B.S., B.A. and masters programs will be available here, provided by a well-established private college that was attracted to the region by the steady emphasis upon quality education.
Due to the success of the law school, I was asked by county officials to plan and launch another graduate school. I gathered the appropriate sponsors and in late 2004 we launched the new University of Appalachia. Our first program was a college of pharmacy that opened its doors in 2005. In order to secure a niche and draw good students to a remote area, we set up an accelerated program that utilizes summers to train students intensively and graduate them a year earlier than do traditional programs.
Robin Absher (right) of Raven, Virginia, was the first graduate of the University of Appalachia, Buchanan County, VA. Absher received her diploma from the university's founding chairman Frank Kilgore. Dr. Sue Cantrell (center), university president and dean, proudly graduated 66 doctorates of pharmacy May 17, 2008.
Photo: Eric McCarty
On May 17th, we graduated our charter class: 67 brave and optimistic souls, who quit their careers and believed in us to make sure our new school would provide them with lifetime opportunities to advance themselves and their mountain communities. Over 80% of our first class is remaining in Central Appalachia to help improve rural health care outreach.
Together, the two graduate schools have 550 students and 150 employees in an underserved and intensely mined, logged and de-gassed county of 23,000 residents. The favorable economic, social and educational impacts have already been profound.
The emerging approach of utilizing higher ed as an economic development tool in mountain communities found its roots in Buchanan County. These jobs are not outsourced, and our graduates are much more likely to stay “home,” blessing their communities with their knowledge, skill and sense of local mission. Many times, the homegrown solution to embedded problems is the best.
My new motto: “The more colleges built, the less prisons needed”.
Frank Kilgore is a longtime advocate of conservation, education, health care and sustainable job development in the Appalachian coalfields. He can be reached at 276-608-0839.