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Rural Divide

When a Degree Doesn’t Equal a ‘Good Job.’ Appalachian Youth Rethinking College

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Heightened generational and cultural divides are increasingly apparent throughout Appalachia as rural students navigate the path to higher education. College has shifted from presenting a lure of opportunity to one of uncertainty and risk.

To tell community members in a small Appalachian town to pull themselves up by their bootstraps economically in an age when manual labor is becoming less and less crucial is to acknowledge that “good jobs” are disappearing—and often require a college degree. Meanwhile insisting college is the only path to economic opportunity runs the risk of invalidating the experience of generations of families working honest jobs back home.

Families face conflicting choices at the end of high school; Do we encourage our kids to stay, to help out however they can the way we have for generations — or do we send them away to learn new skills, running the risk they might not have a home to return to?

It’s not a matter of will. Rural high school students as a whole actually score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than their urban counterparts, and graduate from high school at a higher percentage than the national average, the U.S. Department of Education reports. Nonetheless, many high schools in ARC-designated economically distressed counties go to college at rates between 20 to 40 percent. That’s significantly lower than the 50 percent college-going rates that rural students as a whole hold nationwide, a figure that scores even lower still than the 60 percent rate of students across the U.S. as a whole.

Regardless, when low-income, first-generation college-going families can’t afford to send their kids far away, precarious financial situations can set families back more than they’re prepared to handle. As a result, many families don’t see college as an option. For those that do, college attendance still comes with a slew of social and economic problems.

Some government initiatives have been put in place to help students out of poverty. But what happens when going off to college actually complicates their personal, familial and community lives?


Franklin, a town in Eastern West Virginia with a population under 700, has one stoplight.

Neither of Jared Lathrop’s parents went to college. Of his 11 cousins, only he and his sister took the university route. Of those two, in line with her childhood dreams, his sister got married soon after leaving home, moved back to Franklin and got to work building a family.

Jared is still working on his third degree.

Starting even in middle school, Lathrop said his mother would remind him when he would struggle with homework, “You’ve got to get out of here, you’ve got to go to college, you’ve got to make something of yourself because I want the best for you.”

When he graduated high school in 2007, he immediately enrolled in West Virginia University’s journalism undergraduate program.

“Since I left Franklin almost 10 years ago, there has been a constant fear of failure that I have had for myself,” he said. “Not from anybody putting it on me, but the idea that I would fail at my job, or fail at grad school, and have to go home.”

He said throughout his life, his mother told him that if he didn’t get to college, he wouldn’t get to leave home.

But now, he doesn’t feel like he can come home just yet, even though he wants to.

“My family has told me to come home and reset, but all I could think of was failure,” he said. “Not because I don’t love my hometown, but because the job prospects are so low there that it just felt like rock bottom in a way.”

In 9th grade, Lathrop’s class unofficially divided itself into those who decided they were going to college, and those who were not. A large swath of his class wanted to work on the farms that they grew up on, Lathrop said. Teachers doled out available resources to those “chosen few” amongst the college-ready group: the ones with the grades, family background and financial security to actually follow through on the promise of college.

In 7th grade, he was connected with a program through Shepherd University (then-College) called Gateway, that provided him with the chance to see what a college campus was like. In high school, he was selected to receive aid through the U.S. Department of Education’s Upward Bound, which provides resources to first-generation college students based on financial need.

These kinds of programs aid students like these the most; those who just need an extra push towards their FAFSA application or one more school tour to solidify their future career trajectory.


Two-and-a-half degrees into her own education, Robin Nelson found herself making minimum wage at a hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia.

She too had been told throughout life to go to college as a chance to bring her family out of poverty; but nobody told her what to study, a lack of guidance she regrets to this day.

“You have to college, you have to college,” family and teachers said, “but what they should have said is ‘you have to get a degree in an industry that needs you,’” said Nelson.

“They sort of picked us,” she said about her high school experience. She was selected as a WVU McNair Scholar for her undergraduate studies at WVU, which is federally funded through the Department of Education to serve first-generation and income-eligible students. Nelson received extra attention from her guidance counselor in high school to be connected with the program.

“I was one of the ‘smarter kids,’ so I took more science and math,” she said of her high school preparations for college. “The others took vocational classes. All of those kids are now electricians and plumbers, coal miners. Those people make good money. I wish that’s what I could have done.”

In 2009, after an extra year in undergrad, she was awarded a double-bachelor’s’ degree in Criminology and Women’s Studies. Unsatisfied with her options, Nelson said she literally Googled “master’s degree, return on investment” to come to the idea of an MBA, despite the fact that she had never taken a business class in her life. Although she felt like she had to study twice as hard as her peers, she graduated with a 3.9 GPA, at the top of her class at WVU.

Now her minimum wage job comes with $55,000 in debt.

Her parents never helped with her tuition, insisting that the decision to leave was her choice, but they still expect her to move back to their thousand-person town of Marlinton, West Virginia.

At age 32, Nelson works now as a secretary at the university, but is actively seeking a position that uses her business degree. If she doesn’t find something soon, she’s determined to get her Ph.D, which she believes will afford her more selection in her career.

Nelson said that her current employer chose her because she was the most well-educated person to apply; they were surprised she took it.


The first weekend he came home during his freshman year, Lathrop ran into a fellow student from his class for the first time since leaving mere months prior.

“And he said ‘Oh look, it’s that kid who graduated and went off to college, he thinks he’s fancy now,’” Lathrop said. “And nothing had changed between us, and it was said in passing, but the impression was that he thought I was better than him. Income-based, we are the same.”

Away from home, Lathrop said the transition to campus life during his freshman year was one of the most eye-opening experiences.

“Morgantown isn’t the most ginormous city in America, but coming from a town of 700 people where we have one stoplight in the county, to sitting in a lecture hall with 300 students — it was almost a reinvention period of ‘who am I, who do I want to be, am I good enough?’” he said.

He was put on a floor with one person from high school, and 48 other students from places like New Jersey and New York, and heard about their experiences of growing up with 2,000 students.

“Meanwhile I can still name every single one of my classmates who I graduated with,” he said.

It gave him a weird sense of homesickness: rejected at school because of where he was from, but not allowed to return home without something to show for leaving. “Am I good enough for an education, or do I belong back home with everybody else?”

Lathrop didn’t go to his high school reunion this year. But he did go to a diner the last time he was home, the same one he always goes to, with the same waitresses who have worked there since he first ate there in high school. They ask what he’s up to lately, and when he talks about his academics, they say it “sounds like a lot,” and leave it at that.


State-level programs like those that Lathrop and Nelson used to help ease the financial burden put on families and encourage their children to get, and finish, college degrees are threatened under recent proposed budget cuts.

The Appalachian Regional Commission defaults to the findings of a study completed in the 1990’s that found major discrepancies between the Appalachian region of Ohio and the rest of the state in terms of college attendance and achievement. Parents who took part noted that the entire process of selecting a college, applying to the school and for financial assistance, and making the transition from high school to college was too complex to complete without outside assistance–especially for those who lacked the personal experience of this process themselves.

But part of the problem is that of majority cultural sentiment. As a whole, fewer rural white men are convinced than their suburban and urban counterparts that colleges and universities have a role in providing necessary skills, according to the Pew Research Center. And that’s not for nothing. The connection between educational attainment and economic development is becoming less and less relevant as automation puts many manual-labor jobs out of business in Appalachia.

Franklin has always been somewhat of a ghost town, he said, with most businesses closed by 8 p.m., and closed on weekends. Now, the community leaders who were in their 50’s and 60’s when he was there are dying off. There are dwindling resources for his high school classmates who stayed, limited job opportunities, and staple businesses shutting down.

Those who left Appalachia for school, with every intention to come back — Lathrop and Nelson both included — are finding fewer reasons to return.

While there are arguments to be made for increased attention on getting rural students to college, more focus must be placed on following these students through into the workforce. As the urban/rural divide has worsened over the years, the benefit of long-term, systemic aid has been recognized as a more sustainable method of maintaining a local workforce than simple in-school resources.

“In a small town this really isn’t the norm,” Nelson said of her own student debt. “People get married and stay there, and get on welfare…or whatever.”

Lovey Cooper (@loveycooper) is a contributing editor with 100 Days in Appalachia, and reports on the intersection of politics and culture. Her work appears in The Atlantic, Vice, Rewire News and Education Week.

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Rural Housing Group Warns of Looming Crisis for Renters

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HAC Conference Day 2 , Capitol Hilton Hotel. Washington DC Dec. 6, 2018 . Photo: © Rick Reinhard 2018 email rick@rickreinhard.com

The nation is not keeping pace with repairing and replacing more than 400,000 affordable rental units that serve low-income rural residents. Without action, a cascade of rentals will age out of the program, creating a housing gap that could contribute to rural population loss, according to the Housing Assistance Council.

Rural America faces an affordable-housing crisis that, if left unchecked, could raise rents for low-income residents and contribute to rural population loss in coming years, a national nonprofit organization says.

The Housing Assistance Council (HAC) sounded the alarm during its recent biannual conference.

The question is not “if,” but “when” the crisis will occur, according to HAC.

Hundreds of thousands of rental units could age out of a USDA affordable housing program in the next 25 years. The result is likely to be steep rent increases for rural  residents who can least afford it.

The graph shows the potential loss of affordable rental units and properties in rural America. The USDA’s 515 rural affordable rental program currently has more than 400,000 units. Rents are likely to rise to market levels when these projects pay off loans and exit the program. Photo: Housing Assistance Council

“There are about 415,000 units still in existence in this program,”  HAC’s CEO, David Lipsetz told the Daily Yonder at the conference in Washington, D.C. “Every single one of those units is on a time clock. Every single one of those units without some action to recapitalize the property is going to deteriorate.” Without reinvestment, the properties will have to leave the affordable rental program.

“We have these units, we have this stock,” Lipsetz said. “If we don’t fund it well enough to even keep what we have, we’re going to continue to depopulate rural places.” He said failing to allocate enough funding for upkeep and rehabilitation will mean that rural communities will lose an important asset.

Though the rural cost of living is lower than it is in major metropolitan areas, adequate housing is still a big problem in smaller communities, said Stephen Sugg, HAC’s government relations manager.

“We’re learning that in rural housing, there is a crisis and people think that it’s different than urban America,” he said. “It looks different, but very high percentages of rural renters are paying over half their income in rent.” Losing affordable rental units that were constructed through the USDA 515 program will make that problem worse, Sugg said.

Nine out of 10 counties in the United States have rental units built through the USDA 515 rental housing program. Photo: HAC

USDA’s Section 515 Rural Rental Housing is among the few rental housing programs specifically for rural communities, according to the HAC report. The program started in 1963 and has financed more than 533,000 apartment units in nearly 28,000 different developments.

The program supports mortgages for the builders of rental housing for very-low-, low-, and moderate-income families, elderly persons, and persons with disabilities.

Those groups face the gravest danger.  Once the properties that hold their units exit the program after being paid off by the owner, the individuals might find themselves unable to participate in the unsubsidized rental market.

Just how big of an issue for rural America is the housing provided through the Section 515? According to HAC’s data, 87 percent of all counties in the United States have at least one USDA multifamily property.

“The leading edge social science research now tells us that housing is one of the most powerful predictors of your wealth, of your economic mobility, your educational outcomes and very importantly your health outcomes,” Lipsetz told the Daily Yonder.

What worries analysts and researchers at HAC is the number of maturing mortgages on the Section 515 properties that will exit the market. According to the report, nearly 90 percent of USDA’s portfolio is over 20 years old, while over half of those properties are over 30 years old.

“When a USDA Section 515 loan ends for any reason, the property also loses its Section 521 Rental Assistance. Some properties are restricted to low-income use for a period of time after they leave the program. In instances where there is no restrictive use provision, owners may increase rents to levels their low-income tenants may not be able to afford,” states the HAC report.

The numbers of units that will no longer be available in the coming decades to some of the poorest residents in rural America are staggering. We are currently in what HAC describes as the build up phase, meaning that the loss of projects and individual units in the coming several years will remain roughly under 5000 units per year.

But it is after that build up phase, while the affordable housing market enters the first peak phase, when the situation is projected to deteriorate rapidly.

Furthermore, over 48,000 units are located in what is characterized as high risk counties, meaning that the markets are either declining or rapidly expanding.

The consequences of mortgages maturing on the USDA properties will be compounded by other factors as well. Ninety percent of counties with Section 515 properties are counties persistent poverty. HAC estimated that in 77 of those counties Section 515 units constitutes more than 10 percent of the total rental stock.

“Over 5,400 Section 515 properties are in counties where more than half of all rental households are cost-burdened. The majority of these are located in the Southeast and Far West, with a relatively high percentage of African-American and Hispanic tenants,” concluded the report.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Bipartisan Support for Rural Housing Keeps Programs Alive

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Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell says economic recovery has been uneven for rural communities and other specific parts of the U.S. Powell addressed the Housing Assistance Council conference in Washington, D.C., on December 6. Photo: Courtesy of HAC. © Rick Reinhard 2018. Used with permission.

Congress has ignored requests from the Trump administration to zero out rural housing programs. But merely protecting current funding will not address rural housing needs adequately, advocates say.

Building stronger rural communities requires creating new housing initiatives, not just preserving the housing stock that is already in place, says the head of a national rural housing nonprofit.

“I’m tired of being in the defensive posture,” said David Lipsetz, CEO of the Housing Assistance Council.  As important as it is to preserve existing affordable housing, “we are not going to keep small towns vibrant and vital by saving that dilapidated 12 unit on the corner of town.”

Rural affordable housing units exist today because they were a public priority years ago. There’s less focus on the issue today, Lipsetz said.

“Take a look at the landscape of all the programs and organizations – we’re all celebrating our 40th and 50th anniversaries right now,” he said. “I’m proud that HAC is approaching half a century of deep commitment and hard work in rural places, but where is the new HAC? Where is the three-year-old and the five-year-old organization that’s coming?”

The new organizations are not emerging because rural affordable housing hasn’t been high enough on the public agenda in recent years, Lipsetz said.

“Rural is not just small urban,” HAC’s communications manager, Dan Stern, told the Daily Yonder. He gave an example of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit which, if adapted to rural markets, could do a lot of good. “But it would be great to have a program that is designed with the realities of rural in mind.”

In an era of divisive politics, rural housing is less partisan than other issues.

“Rural housing is one of the few areas left in D.C. […] where there is true bipartisan support for it,” HAC’s Government Relations Manager Stephen Sugg said.

But challenges remain. Among the most serious: the question of funding. Everyone echoed the same message – housing programs and housing stock already in place need to be preserved, and it won’t happen without money.

“The last few of President Trump’s budgets have zeroed out the core programs that are absolutely essential to what we do” in affordable rural housing, Sugg said. “If that happened people would be on the streets in rural America.”

Congress agreed across party lines to reject the administration’s budget proposal for rural housing.

“Do we have to continue to get lucky like that every year?” Lipsetz asked.

He explained that it would be  more than killing programs already in place. It would mean “crushing the infrastructure that produces and protects that housing […] Cutting the housing budgets down is unacceptable.”

Lipsetz emphasized that the key to the healthy, affordable housing is a holistic approach toward issues of rural and small town America. Without policies taking into consideration impacts on towns of 1,000, as well as 100,000, there will be more harm than good delivered to some of the poorest parts of America.

Affordable housing is critical for addressing other rural policy areas, Lipsetz said, especially for affordable-housing clients such as the elderly, disabled, and very low-income (families making between  $12,000 to $15,000  a year).

“We have never and will never just work on housing,” Lipsetz said. “You can’t. If you’re from a small town you know you got three hats on […] you’re working on multiple issues.”

Lipsetz also said private philanthropy needs to be more involved in rural housing.

“In the era of shrinking government, corporate and philanthropic organizations have a strong interest that they are not serving well in this part of the population,” he said.

“If you’re a big philanthropic entity that says in its mission statement that you care deeply about eradicating poverty and about equity and sustainability […] and you’re not in that huge landscape of persistent poverty, then you are not being true to your mission. And we have seen lots of big philanthropic entities, just like we have seen lots of big political parties, leave their rural narrative.”

Among the guest speakers at the conference was Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. The Democrat sits on the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, the Committee on Indian Affairs, and the Special Committee on Aging, giving her several places to address housing issues.

Cortez Masto is  co-sponsoring a number of bills, including the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, a bipartisan bill aiming to provide 1.3 million additional rental homes nationwide in the next decade and expand the low-income housing tax credit by another 50 percent. The bill would also provide a 50 percent basis boost to developments that set aside 20 percent of units for the lowest income families and 30 percent basis boost for difficult-to-develop areas.

That last incentive is of particular importance to Native American communities. In Nevada alone there are 26 Native communities that could benefit from that development incentive.

Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell spoke about the rural economy. He warned that the “aggregate statistics can mask important variations between different demographic income groups as well as significant regional differences.”

Despite overall readings that indicate labor market to be strong nationwide, Powell stressed that parts of America – rural parts in particular – still lag in benefitting from the current economic expansion.

Powell also highlighted the Fed’s involvement in a digital inclusion initiative and collaborative research with banks and Fed staff on rural affordable-housing challenges.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Rural Divide

New Report Cites Economic Woes, Addiction and Optimism in Appalachia

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A view of Main Street in Moorefield, West Virginia. Photo: Famartin/Wikimedia Commons

Siblings Hannah and Hilary Heishman were born and raised in Moorefield, a town of some 2,500 in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.

Hannah and her husband, Kris Jenkins, have built a life for themselves in Moorefield. They’re both veterans and volunteer for all manner of vet-related activities throughout Hardy County – barbecuing at fundraisers, helping out whenever and wherever they can.

Hilary, who now lives in New Jersey, regularly returns home. She was there last week, having dinner with her family, and, she recounts, “The police scanner was on. Because that’s normal, right?”

Hannah and Kris overhear that an ambulance is headed to the local VFW, a place the couple knows well. Hannah is an EMT and all at once, she and her husband jump up from the table, en route to assist.

Hilary tells the story not only for what it confirms about her family, but because, from her perspective, it underscores a truth about rural America at large – one substantiated in a newly released report.

Last week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released “Life in Rural America,” reporting the results of a telephone survey of 1,320 adults living in rural communities throughout the country. Hilary Heishman is a senior program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who assists with the foundation’s rural grant-making.

Its objective was to gain insight into rural Americans’ views on the economic and health issues challenging their communities. Those surveyed asserted that their most pressing concerns are jobs and the local economy and addiction.

This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with life today in rural communities – certainly not to Heishman – but neither is she surprised by another significant finding of the report: Throughout rural America, optimism abides.

Rural Americans, the authors of the report write, are largely optimistic about the future, with a majority expressing faith in their community and lauding its virtues – foremost, a shared sense of just that: community.

This finding brought reassurance to Heishman. She was relieved, she said, to hear rural residents express “a lot more optimism and satisfaction with their lives” than is more customarily conveyed through “the stories that people choose to tell about rural America – and about Appalachia in particular.”

Certainly, rural America is, in many respects, reeling. Rural communities are staring down some grim truths.

A majority of those surveyed rate their local economy as only fair or poor. They’re concerned about their job prospects. One in three say they need to receive training or develop new skills in order to keep their job or find a better one. Interestingly, though, those without a college degree are more optimistic about solving major community problems than those with one.

Half of those surveyed say the cost of their family’s health care has caused a major financial problem within the last few years.

Drug misuse is of equal concern.

“In particular,” the authors of “Life in Rural America” write, “opioid addiction/abuse have had major impacts on the lives of rural Americans.” A majority state that opioid addiction is a serious problem in their community; about half say they personally know someone who has struggled with opioid addiction.

In rural Appalachia, drugs are of even greater concern than among rural residents as a whole. Four in 10 in the region consider them the most urgent issue facing their community.

Three out of four say that “the problem of people being addicted to opioids in their local community” is a serious one. Two-thirds say the issue has grown worse in the past five years.

Factor into this the findings of another Robert Wood Johnson study, conducted earlier this year, indicating that Appalachia has higher than average mortality rates in seven of the leading causes of death in the U.S., including addiction and suicide, and Appalachians’ concerns are well founded.

Yet, according to the “Life in Rural America” report, “Most rural adults say their lives have either turned out better than expected or about like they expected…and a majority think their children will be better off financially compared to themselves.”

They like where they live. The authors write that many of those interviewed say they feel attached to their community, identifying its intimacy, the virtues of life in a small town and being around good people as its greatest strengths.

“They’re glad to have the help of neighbors,” Heishman said.

Better public schools, new-skills training and long-term job growth, they acknowledge, is required. Outside help will be essential. Among those who cite the need for that assistance, a majority believe the government will play a primary role.

Another finding that echoes Heishman’s everyday experience, and encourages her, is that more rural residents under the age of 50 than above say they’re active in efforts to solve their community’s problems.

“It’s true,” Heishman said. “In just the last few years, we’ve started to see that trend. More and more people under 50 are stepping in to replace the older adults who had been running and planning everything forever.”

In sum, what Heishman hears in “Life in Rural America” sounds like home.

“I loved hearing this hopefulness and optimism that resonates with my actual experiences,” she said, because that optimism is “how you get through when things aren’t easy.”

“People are not giving up,” she attests. “They’re trying to find local solutions to their problems in lots of different ways. And when you have that, it leads to the kind of hope for the future that we saw in this poll.”

There in Hardy County, West Virginia, Heishman’s optimism is embodied in her sister. Four generations of the Heishman family have owned and operated the local newspaper, the Moorefield Examiner. Hannah – veteran, EMT, community volunteer – is today its associate publisher, maintaining a tradition and helping assure that the voice of a community is heard.

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