June 22, 2017
By Greg Johnson
Culture counts. Values matter.
The “sudden” ascendancy of rural Americans in November’s presidential election has led to seemingly unending surveys, studies and commentary on the rural/urban divide. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Poll released this week found rural and urban Americans face similar economic challenges but diverge on cultural issues.
Urbanites are more likely to have friends, neighbors and colleagues of different races or religions or sexual predilections. Rural Americans are more likely to have friends, neighbors and colleagues they’ve known since kindergarten. The divide goes on and on.
One urban/rural cultural difference appeared this week in another study, one released by Complete Tennessee, a non-profit advocacy group encouraging post-secondary educational attainment to support Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative. Urban centers in Tennessee boast significantly higher rates of residents completing post-secondary education.
Nearly 50 percent of Knox County residents hold either a post-secondary degree or certificate. Anderson (36 percent), Blount (38 percent), Campbell (21 percent), Jefferson (30 percent), Loudon (37 percent), Sevier (28 percent) and Union (19 percent) lagged in post-secondary attainment, some badly.
The study found startling reasons. In a listening tour with education stakeholders in the region, Complete Tennessee found some adult students have difficulty addressing work-life balance when going back to school. Participants suggested adding childcare and eldercare options to help adult students.
Discussion participants also “expressed a need for area high schools, post-secondary institutions and local employers to work collaboratively to develop meaningful work experiences that expose students to various career options in the region.” In other words, show students what is possible by creating “clearly-defined career pathways” that let them see what is at the end of the education road.
The most startling finding was that many students are simply unaware of access to post-secondary education. Tennessee foots the bulk of the bill for two years of college. There are 13 institutions of higher learning – colleges and technical schools – in East Tennessee. Yet rural students are unaware of their options.
The crux: “The lack of a college-going culture further complicates the issue.” Education begets education. College degrees beget college degrees. Economic success begets economic success. Kids from highly-educated homes are more likely to become highly educated. Hence our education divide. Hence our economic divide. Hence another example of the rural/urban divide.
Complete Tennessee suggests marketing campaigns and partnering with K-12 systems to expose students at an earlier age to the value of higher education. As one participant said, “Students need a chance to get on (a college) campus, see what life is like and see that they can do it.”
Too many rural kids have never seen education unlock economic opportunity. They do not know the path to prosperity leads through a post-secondary campus. Sadly, too many do not even know the path exists. Culture counts. Values matter. To encourage a college-going culture in rural areas demands we expose our children early and often to the value of education.