Two Counties and the Difference Education Makes

[imgbelt img=cottonmill528.jpg]Want to know what education means to the health and wealth of a community? Look at the history of two Alabama counties.

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found here. See this space next Friday for Lee’s third installment.)

The importance of good schools can be vividly illustrated by looking at the history of two nearly identical rural counties in Alabama.

Both have had an interstate for 40 years.  Both are within 75 miles of major airports and metro areas.

In 1950, the first county had 10,000 fewer people, but it had more high school and college graduates than the second county.  The first was still largely dependent upon agriculture while 50 percent of the labor force in the more affluent one worked in manufacturing.

In terms of median family income and percent of the population with high school degrees, the first county ranked near the top of the state, while the second ranked closer to the bottom.

But over the next 50 years, their fortunes slowly, but steadily, began to reverse.

In 1975, the lines tracking the percent high school graduates crossed and by 1995. So did median family income.

County A built a legacy of education over the last fifty years and as a result, its students score higher than the state average on reading and math tests. County B students score considerably below the state average.

Why College Grads Stay Away

To learn more about what has happened in the rural communities of Alabama, I recently questioned more than 200 people who grew up in 45 rural counties and graduated from high school anywhere from 1956 to 1993.

The average graduation year of those I interviewed was 1972. Their average class size was 67. About 37 percent of each class went on to college, many to a two-year school.  Interestingly enough, about 36 percent of those questioned had a parent who went to college. However, many came from families where neither parent had a high school education.

Of those who got college degrees, precious few returned to the communities where they grew up, less than 20 percent in most cases.  That works out to four college degrees returning while 14 did not, for each class of 67 students.

Those who came back had a family business or farm to return to, became a teacher, or became a doctor, attorney or dentist and returned to their hometowns to open a practice. If they were a minority, they only returned to be teachers.

Why did the others not return?

“Lack of opportunity” was the answer I got over and over.  

There were 18 members of the class of 1978 in a Chambers County school. One became an attorney and moved to Maine.  One became a civil engineer and moved to Texas.  One became a nurse and moved to Ohio.  One went into the military.  Four became teachers and stayed in the county.  One graduated in agricultural science and moved to Birmingham.  Of those who did not go to college, only one left the area.

One respondent grew up in a mill village in Tallapoosa County and said that many of his classmates who returned home majored in textile management.  “They thought they had lifetime jobs,” he said wryly.

Ten of the 45 members of the class of 1962 of a Washington County school went to college.  Three got their doctorates.  None live in Washington County.

A 1962 graduate from a Butler County school said, “Of those leaving home for college, the returnee is the exception. There are simply no local jobs for professional folk.”

Fourteen of a Dekalb County class of 56 went to college.  Only three, all teachers, are still in the county.  Of a 1968 class of 62 in Lamar County, perhaps 15 finished college.  Two teachers, a social worker and an engineer are still in the county.

Of course it would be foolhardy to imply that someone cannot succeed without a college degree. Bill Gates is case in point.  Many of those questioned had parents who, while only high school graduates or less, had successful careers.  Still these mamas and daddies saw the value in education and encouraged their children to go beyond high school.  They saw a day when it would be more important to be able to think than to be able to sweat.

Leaving and Not Coming Back

So for decades now, the majority of our best and brightest young people across rural Alabama have been leaving home only to come back for high school reunions and family holidays.

A 1967 graduate of a Winston County school tells a story that sums up the situation well:

“When I was in the 7th or 8th grade the principal came in our room and told us, ‘All of you who finish high school will leave Winston County and not return.  Those of you who drop out of school will stay in Winston County and your children will come to school and want to do the same thing. There is no hope for Winston County.’”

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