Here are 9 ways higher education can ensure rural America’s long-term vitality

"The highest-paying jobs in rural areas are in white-collar, blue-collar, and protective services occupations, and blue-collar and protective services occupations are more likely to employ men," said Martin Van Der Werf, the report co-author and CEW's director of editorial and education policy.

Rural towns in the U.S. are often stigmatized for their meek economies and decaying industries amid the overwhelming presence of the digitized, globalized and unmistakably urban world that predominates the United States. A comprehensive report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) illustrates the resilience of America’s blue-collar region and describes how increased collaboration with higher education can ensure its survival.

“Rural Americans often feel deeply connected to their communities, but they are increasingly faced with the hard choice of moving to urban areas or staying in rural areas where they have fewer professional and educational opportunities,” Anthony Carnevale, director of CEW, said in a press release. “Rural America needs more strategies and investment to hold onto its good jobs and create more economic opportunity.”

The CEW aimed to discover how many rural workers currently possess “good jobs,” meaning those that even the minimum earnings guarantee economic self-sufficiency. While the analysis accounts for geographic differences in the cost of living between rural and urban areas, it generally defines this category as those that pay a minimum of $43,000 for workers aged 25–44 and $55,000 for workers aged 45–64 in 2022 U.S. dollars.

By this standard, the rate at which urban and rural workers possess good jobs is very similar. The rural workforce comprises 13% of all U.S. workers and 12% of all good jobs in this country. About 50% of all rural workers work a good job, which rivals the 54% of urban workers making enough to be economically self-sufficient.

The most positive trait of working in a rural area is that rural workers without a bachelor’s degree fare better than those in urban America, thanks to its remaining blue-collar jobs and a rising recreation and tourism economy.

However, the durability of America’s rural regions rests squarely on the shoulders of its citizens accessing higher forms of education, notes the report.

The CEW studied 25-to-64-year-old adults using five years’ worth of U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015 to 2019.

Troubling figures for rural areas

The healthy data points of America’s rural regions rest almost entirely on its White male workforce. Nearly a third of all Black (31%) and Indigenous (30%) rural residents live in poverty. More than one in five rural Hispanic residents live under the same conditions. Even white women trail behind their male counterparts: only 37% of them work good jobs compared to the 63% of men who work good jobs.

The report believes that the economic diversity of rural residents by racial and gender-based lines has largely to do with different forms of segregation currently in the area. The areas in which Hispanic, Black and Indigenous workers live are usually denoted by their high poverty levels. Women, on the other hand, are generally kept out of jobs due to “occupational segregation.”

“The highest-paying jobs in rural areas are in white-collar, blue-collar, and protective services occupations, and blue-collar and protective services occupations are more likely to employ men,” Martin Van Der Werf, report co-author and CEW’s director of editorial and education policy, said in the press release.

With rural areas becoming increasingly racially diverse and the share of white Americans declining, the economic vitality of rural areas is bound to weaken.

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How higher education can plug the gaps

CEW found that postsecondary education increases the probability of workers finding a good job outside blue-collar work. While this traditional job title is the most abundant and can guarantee acceptable wages without a degree, the majority of these workers (especially non-White men) are struggling.

As a result, researchers at Georgetown recommended the following to fortify higher education in rural America.

Building rural capital
  • Add more comprehensive and accessible counseling services in schools, colleges, and communities to destigmatize the prospect of higher education to K12 students and their families.
  • Enforce the Department of Education’s Gainful Employment Rule and increase oversight of institutions to improve consumer protection and ensure student borrowers aren’t saddled with unbearable debt.
  • Bolster holistic wraparound support services across all levels of education in an area with high poverty rates.
  • Nourish the “education deserts” with free, bachelor’s degree-granting community college and expand K12 dual enrollment.
  • Continue building and expanding high-speed broadband access in rural areas to support online learning.
Utilize existing rural human capital
  • Create programs that train the workforce to fill local jobs
  • Build relationships between educators and employers
  • Micro-credentialing and alternative credentials can increase recognition of students’ learned skills
  • Create programs that help redress women and underrepresented groups’ lack of access to good jobs.
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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