Is there an answer to the poverty, joblessness, and poor health conditions so frequently associated with Appalachia? Yes, and the answer should come as no surprise. Appalachian residents will better themselves and their environment with increased education. Nothing serves to level the “playing field” of life like the cultivation of educational improvement. Education is the key to prosperity and survival.
Levels of education are closely associated with several indicators of success in life. Higher levels of educational attainment are not only associated with higher salaries but also with better health, healthier children, and longer life expectancies. Studies show that educated individuals live longer, participate more actively in politics and in the community where they live, commit fewer crimes, and rely less on social assistance.
To improve Appalachia, we must expect all young people to extend their education beyond high school. No longer is a high school diploma a key to the work force. The need for more workers in all occupations to have higher levels of both knowledge and skills steadily grows. Post-secondary education – including two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and technical and vocational schools – is a necessity for all, and the level of study required for success is continuing to rise.
Families, schools, and communities must come together to increase educational advancement. The old, traditional attitude of “Livin' is more important than schoolin'” is detrimental to needed change. A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information stated: “With the disappearance of more traditional labor opportunities in rural areas, it is increasingly important that rural youth find both the motivation and support to pursue alternate pathways, including those afforded by higher education.”
It should be noted that research suggests there is still a detrimental generation gap in the perceptions on the utility of education. Many older residents view higher education as less important than do their children, and they have lower educational expectations of them, as a result. Too many parents still cultivate the view that a decent job can be obtained without a college degree, which has resulted in lack of parental support.
The research suggests that this gap stems from the changing socio-economic conditions in Appalachia. This is disadvantageous to Appalachian students because parents are key providers of resources and emotional support.
What contributes to effecting a rise in much-needed post-secondary enrollment? Certainly quality public schooling K-12 is a must. Yet, this education needs to include increased expectations of achievement for all students, not just for the typical “college-prep” crowd. Students must understand that tech, vocational, and community colleges offer essential programs that provide access to careers with a future.
Understanding and improving the academic performance of Appalachian students is so important. Public schools must help shape students’ beliefs that they can successfully transition from high school to essential post-secondary institutions. In other words, there should be an understanding that there is a “good fit” for all in the many programs available.
In addition to socio-cultural disadvantages, the cost of tuition creates a significant barrier to educational access. An increase in Appalachian student financial aid seems to be needed.
Another factor that makes a difference for at-risk students is mentoring. In her critically-acclaimed book, Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, published in 1999, Cynthia M. Duncan explains the role of mentoring …
“I found that in both Appalachia and the Delta, the kids who made it were those who had mentors who believed in them, that when a young girl or boy would get special attention from a coach or teacher or an aunt or an uncle, it could make a big difference in the kind of decisions that he or she made going forward.”
In addition, Duncan discovered a very important factor affecting poor kids' options and potential mobility out of poverty is the way the community works. When middle-class children make mistakes and get into trouble, family and community resources work together to provide them a “second chance.” This cooperation should be no different concerning low-income communities and low-income families.
Human capital theory suggests that job opportunities will create incentives for students to invest, or not invest, in education. If the economic structure of the community does not reward education, students might drop out of school. Data from Virginia indicate that a higher percentage of service occupations in the county increases the dropout rate. A higher percentage of managerial/professional occupations decreases the dropout rate and increases the percentage of graduates continuing their education.
Finally, family stability is important. Children who experience predictability in family income, in residence, and in day-to-day life are more successful at navigating adolescence. Studies of project New Hope show that an intervention to give earnings supplements to families in exchange for getting the household heads and partners in the families to work steadily, has a positive effect, not only on family well-being and marriage stability, but even on how their children did in school.
Investments of money, time, and interest in education will pay great dividends to Appalachia. Nothing else will guarantee much needed change. Young residents should become open to extending their educations beyond high school to complete some form of post-secondary study. This requires a new mindset on the part of students who typically expect high school to satisfy their lifetime educational needs. It also requires a total commitment of resources to effecting a permanent, positive change.
Ryan Brown, William E. Copeland, E. Jane Costello, Alaattin Erkanli, Carol M. Worthman. “Family and Community Influences on Educational Outcomes Among Appalachian Youth.” J Community Psychol. September 2009.
Dan Goldhaber and Dan Player. Analytical Framework for Assessing the Potential Return on a Federal Investment in the Alliance for Excellent Education's "Every Child a Graduate." http://www.all4ed.org/publications.
"Development and Progress of the Appalachian Higher Education Network.” The Appalachian Regional Commission.
Scott M. Powell. Perceptions of Appalachian Students about Post-Secondary Education.” Dissertation presented to the faculty of the College of Education of Ohio University. June 2008.
Paola Scommegna. “Low Education Levels and Unemployment Linked in Appalachia.” Population Reference Bureau.
Judith I. Stallman and Thomas G. Johnson. “Community Factors in Secondary Educational Achievement in Appalachia. June 1, 1996.