Want to know what education means to the health and wealth of a community? Look at the history of two Alabama counties.
(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three stories written by Larry Lee about development in the Deep South. His first story can be 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.
By 2000, the first county, the affluent county of 50 years earlier, was smaller than in 1950, while the second county had grown 57 percent. Even more impressive is the fact that in second county, the one poorer in 1950, the number of high school graduates went up three times faster and college graduates four times faster than in the county that had more of each in 1950.
Two things happened. The first county clung to its cotton economy while the second county worked hard to diversify its economy. The second county understood that new companies need a well-educated work force while there is little evidence that the other took education into account.
A look at test scores for the past five years for both county school systems is revealing. In the second county, all students in grades 3-8 scored above the state average in reading and math at level 4. In the first, the same scores were significantly 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.’”
Any cattleman knows that you improve the quality of your herd by keeping your best heifers. Unfortunately, as the Winston County principal knew all too well, rural Alabama has been selling its best heifers for a long time.
Evidence of this can be seen in ACT scores of incoming freshmen at Auburn University. For the last six years, the average ACT scores of freshmen have been lower for students from rural schools than non-rural schools.
Dr. Don Bogie, the former head of the Center for Demographic Research at AUM looked at the rate of college enrollment per 1,000 persons 18 or older for 1970 and 2000. He studied four rural counties (Cherokee, Choctaw, Franklin and Geneva) and three urban counties (Houston, Montgomery, Morgan).
It is hardly surprising then that rural counties trail urban counties significantly in this measurement. Of the seven counties, Franklin has the highest college enrollment rate of the rural counties, but this rate significantly trails the three urban counties.
Data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education that shows that in 2007, 14 percent or more of students from 17 counties had to have remedial math or English when they got to college. All 17 counties are rural.
So not only are rural students going to college at a much lower rate than are those from urban areas, but those who do go lag behind students from urban counties in how well they are prepared.
School dropouts have always been a rural problem. Data from the Alabama Department of Education shows that over the last five years rural schools have had 30 percent of our public school students—but 36 percent of our dropouts. But as long as the mills and sewing factories were in operation, dropouts had a place to go. This is no longer the case.
Ask any rural high school guidance counselor why kids today drop out of school and you will quickly be told, “Because they are not getting any support at home.” But if mama or daddy dropped out themselves, is this surprising?
So entering the second decade of the 21st century, rural Alabama finds itself in a dilemma, one that has not gone unnoticed nationally.
In mid-December, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that Alabama leads the nation in percentage of rural jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007. Last fall a national study by the Rural School and Community Trust determined that Alabama’s rural schools need more attention than those of any other state in the nation.
It comes down to this, at a time in history when the race will go to those with the best schooling, rural educators across the state (already struggling because of economic constrictions) are trying to sell the importance of education to a populace that increasingly has never shown that they valued it.