US Educational attainment in rural America reached a historic high in 2000, with nearly one in six rural adults holding a 4-year college degree, and more than three in four completing high school. As the demand for workers with higher educational qualifications rises, many rural policymakers have come to view local educational levels as a critical determinant of job and income growth in their communities. Attracting employers who provide higher skill jobs and encouraging educational gains are seen as complementary components of a high-skill, high-wage development strategy.
But policymakers are faced with two key questions. First, does a better educated population lead to greater economic growth? According to a recent study, rural counties with high educational levels saw more rapid earnings and income growth over the past two decades than counties with lower educational levels. However, economic returns to education for rural areas continue to lag those for urban areas.
Second, are there ways to improve local educational attainment, particularly through improvements in elementary and high schools, that can enhance the economic well-being of rural residents and communities? In fact, preliminary research demonstrates a connection between better schools and positive outcomes in terms of earnings and income growth for rural workers and rural communities.
Ultimately, the strength of the tie between education and economic outcomes is influenced in part by the extent to which small rural counties lose young adults through outmigration. The loss of potential workers from rural areas, as young adults leave for college and work opportunities in urban areas, has concerned rural observers for many decades. This rural "brain drain" not only deprives rural employers of an educated workforce, but also depletes local resources because communities that have invested in these workers' education reap little return on that investment.
Rural Adults Post Major But Uneven Educational Gains
The rise in educational attainment since the end of World War II has been a remarkable success story in rural America. In 1970, 7 percent of rural adults had graduated from college, while 56 percent of the rural adult population did not have a high school diploma. By 2000, 16 percent of rural adults age 25 and older had completed college and more than 75 percent had finished high school.
Though rapid, these gains understate the educational attainment of the younger working population, ages 25-44. Nearly one-fourth of rural younger adults have at least a 4-year college degree, and over 80 percent have completed high school. Gains in educational attainment in rural areas were particularly pronounced during the 1960s, dividing the generation that viewed college as an option for the relatively few from the generation for whom college attendance became "ordinary."
A similar divide can be seen in the steady increase in job skill requirements of rural firms, as employment shifted over time from farm to factory to services. Between 1980 and 2000, for instance, the share of rural workers in low-skill jobs fell from 47 to 42 percent.
The relationship between high educational levels and high-skill jobs has prompted many communities to pay closer attention to the role of workforce education and training in their economic development plans. But the benefit of raising educational levels will vary widely from place to place because of the...