From the Andy Griffith Show and It’s a Wonderful Life to Dan in Real Life and E.T., the small town is where we escape to when the big city gets too big. The tea is sweeter, the people are nicer, and the football is better. It turns out that as we were building up this small town in our mind’s eye, the real world was busy tearing down real small towns. While everything from teen pregnancy to methamphetamine has a role to play, America’s public educational system’s failure looms large over the issue. This post will describe this unseen crisis and try to point public opinion in a more informed and productive direction.
Put simply, every single step towards educational attainment fails waves of rural students. In my home state of New Mexico, some rural communities have high school graduation rates as low as 61% in Cuba and 55% in Espanola. Put differently, if there were 10 major characters in a movie set in a rural high school, 6 would graduate. In the Breakfast Club 2 of the 5 characters would have dropped out (I think everyone familiar with the movie would pick the same characters, but that is for another day). Rural towns are less likely to have private or charter schools, too, which means that a student that is struggling in the local school has no real alternative. Some urban schools have low graduation rates, and some small towns have remarkably high graduation rates. The data overwhelmingly point to a clear trend, however: rural children graduate at a much lower rate than urban children.
For those who do graduate and choose to continue their education in my home of New Mexico, the most common destinations for post-secondary education are the nearby state universities. For those who choose to enroll in a state school, either for convenience or because they can’t afford $50,000 per year, their choices are the University of New Mexico with its 15% on time graduation rate; New Mexico State with its 16% on time graduation rate; and New Mexico Tech with its 22% on time graduation rate.
Do students take longer than 4 years to graduate and eventually get that diploma? Of course they do, and the data show that somewhere around 48% of University of New Mexico Students eventually graduate. But ask yourself: are rural or urban students more likely to tough it out in a big city where waves of students are crashing against the shores of bureaucratic nonsense? Are students from distant corners of the state who can’t get financial or emotional support from family more likely to tough it out?
Putting the numbers together, somewhere around 8.25% of Espanola High freshmen will make it through the University of New Mexico eight years after starting Espanola High. How many of these newly minted degree holders will want to return to their hometown? More importantly, how many could use their new skills in their hometown? Business and education will always employ degree holders, but how well will they pay? What are the odds a talented mechanical engineer can put their degree to use in a small town? If our Espanola High freshman doubles down and gets a graduate or professional degree, with the debt those degrees require, it becomes exponentially more difficult to make it work in their hometown. Anecdotally, I have spent time in law offices of 2 rural New Mexican towns. Of the 15+ attorneys I have worked with, none came from rural New Mexico. Attorneys came from Maine, Iowa, Michigan, and California-but never from rural New Mexico. I suspect this is because virtually no one from the rural areas made it to law school, and, among those that do, virtually none return.
You may be asking yourself by now: who cares if 91.75% of Espanola High freshmen don’t get a bachelor’s degree on time? As discussed above, some will eventually graduate, but there is no denying that many will not. So what? Who cares if the local sheriff in Rose, Texas studied Aristotle? A utilitarian answer is that low educational attainment is correlated with committing crimes. Another answer points to the drain on the economy if a would-be doctor gets railroaded out of college and becomes a sheriff. This transaction presents particularly difficult policy questions in the middle of a looming doctor shortage.
Even the most libertarian among us will feel the pinch of failing rural students when we just flatly run out of doctors and the would-be doctor arrests the would-be engineer for crimes of opportunity.
The more compelling answer sounds more in communitarianism tones. It is just flatly unfair to give large swaths of our citizens little to no chance of getting a potentially life-changing credential. While people disagree on exactly why it is so, many different commentators have come to the conclusion that a college degree separates the upper from the lower classes.
People without college degrees have less stable marriages, commit more crime, develop more health problems, have less stable jobs, abuse more substances, and on and on. The precise cause of this phenomenon is both the subject of debate and beyond the scope of this post. Regardless of why it is so, the end result is this: an Espanola High freshman has an 8.25% chance of staying on the straightest path out of the lower class.
This is the time that most writers will suggest drowning a problem in more funding. As it happens, my home state of New Mexico has proven that more money will not solve anything. The State of New Mexico gives a full tuition scholarship for 8 semesters to all New Mexican high school graduates who maintain a very low GPA. With this educational windfall, the median student takes this benefit and…declines the hard work it takes to graduate on time.
If money won’t fix the problem, then what will? Social science’s suggestions for how to raise graduation rates are legion. Ultimately, for both high schools and universities, the worst idea is to keep doubling down on our current strategies. Paying salaries of curriculum advisors and executive vice provosts choke funding to classrooms and research. Protests impede access to education, both literally and figuratively. Which course to follow is less important than giving this issue the attention it deserves.
Fixing rural education won’t fix everything. It won’t make meth less addicting or bring back manufacturing jobs. But it will do a lot of work in making all citizens equal before the law. Education is one of the very few social forces that government can really shape or control, and it’s time to use education to bring life back to our small towns.