Monday, January 28, 2019

States seek to improve college-graduation rates in an effort to boost rural employment

The lack of college graduates in rural areas is discouraging companies from setting up shop in those areas, many of which are desperate to find educated workers when unemployment rates are already at historical lows. Some states are getting creative to try to fix the problem.

Tennessee, for example, has promised free community college to all residents starting this fall, and more than a dozen counties with low college-graduation rates have created "completion councils" comprised of elected officials, educators, and businesses. The state currently has a graduation rate of about 40 percent, sixth-lowest in the nation, but is aiming to increase its rate to 55 percent by 2025, Matt Krupnick reports for NPR.

In Humphreys County, on Kentucky Lake west of Nashville, 10 manufacturers "have struck a partnership with the local campus of Nashville State Community College to train and certify factory workers, creating a new employee pipeline from scratch," Krupnick reports. "Graduates, who receive an associate degree in industrial process or mechanical maintenance technology, can expect to earn around $60,000 annually within a few years, the college and its partners say."

Other states in the same boat are also looking for solutions, such as Illinois, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Florida. One big challenge: changing people's attitudes about college who live in areas where not many people traditionally have a college degree, Krupnick reports. Dan Baer, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, pointed out that it's only relatively recently that Americans began to view college as something most people should go to.

"Never before have we had a conclusion that the majority of the population should have a postsecondary credential," Baer told Krupnick. "Postsecondary has always been for a minority of the workforce. This is a true inflection point." But rural Americans can no longer commonly get the kind of high-paying jobs without a degree that they once could, so convincing them that college is necessary can be an uphill battle, Krupnick reports.

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