In recent weeks, presidential candidates have pledged billions of dollars to bring broadband and internet access to rural America. Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and other Democratic hopefuls correctly realize that a lack of high-speed internet and other attendant technologies has profoundly affected rural economies.
That’s a good start: Poor infrastructure derails job creation, which pushes youth to seek their futures in urban centers. Then as the population shrinks, our rural communities are even less likely to garner the necessary investments that result in jobs.
But the issue that the candidates need to address goes far beyond technology. The 2016 election exposed an urban-rural divide that is consigning our smallest communities to second-tier status. It’s troubling that no candidate has begun to identify a strategy to concentrate on a more sweeping problem: More and more young people in our nation’s rural communities look at their hometowns and realize those places simply can’t support their dreams.
Living in a town of 600 residents, and as the leader of a national organization called CFES Brilliant Pathways, I see the challenges rural America faces every day. CFES works in the nation’s smallest and largest school districts, from Hawaii to New York City, and over the last decade, rural students have fallen further and further behind their urban peers.
In cities, students look around and see possibilities for the future. In rural areas, youth look around and see Main Streets shuttered, disappearing jobs and decreasing populations. Rural youth also are more likely to drink alcohol, vape and become addicted to opioids. As one principal of a rural school in the Adirondack region of New York State told me recently, “Our kids have fewer healthy outlets today. It’s no wonder so many are increasingly involved in risky behaviors.”
Every one of the 125 rural schools our organization has worked with in the past decade has seen its student populations drop, some by more than 60%. These enrollment plunges cause budget cuts and a scarcity of new programs, opportunities and teachers.
The story is different in urban America, where students benefit from programs supported by government, business and private dollars. Urban kids have daily access to Teach For America, Boys & Girls Clubs and myriad other resources and services.
From our headquarters in Essex, N.Y., we look across Lake Champlain at Vermont, the state with the highest percentage of rural residents in the nation. Like other rural states, Vermont has high secondary school graduation numbers, but low college going. Because not enough young Vermonters will have the postsecondary education and training they need, leaders there project a shortfall of 132,000 job-ready workers across the state by 2025. In response, Vermont has an ambitious goal to increase the share of citizens with postsecondary degrees from 60% to 70%. The need is similar in other rural states, but Vermonters are taking action by recognizing the problem and endorsing a solution.
We know opportunity lies in what’s ahead, not in looking back. CFES helps every one of its scholars build a pathway to college and career readiness, through mentoring, development of essential skills, and ongoing exposure to postsecondary education and jobs.
Through a program called Rural Forward, CFES Brilliant Pathways will raise $10 million from corporations, individuals and foundations to support 100 rural schools in needy communities over the next five years. Additionally, Rural Forward will recruit 100 business and 100 college partners who will provide another $10 million of in-kind support, including workshops on admissions and how to pay for college, tuition assistance, mentors, internships and job shadowing. The program will directly help 100,000 rural students become college and career ready, and serve another 500,000 indirectly.
This is happening in an environment where college has become increasingly difficult to sell to rural families who are worried about rising costs and who know that when sons and daughters finish college, they may need to move to urban centers to earn the money they’ll need to pay off loans.
Over the election cycle of the next 14 months, we are going to hear a great deal about the urban-rural schism, which will further expose a sector of our population that has been left behind in a world of exponential change.
CFES hopes to join with government leaders and others in providing a comprehensive and tested strategy to fix a vexing problem threatening our nation. Together we can meet the challenge. The alternative will harm not just our rural communities and residents, but all of us who call America home.