Friday, May 27, 2011

Educating a persistent poverty county

I write often about my home county, Newton County, Arkansas, population 8,311, and I've written quite a bit recently (here, here and here) about K-12 education there. Today I want to discuss higher education in relation to the county's populace and, in particular, to consider what the data might reveal about educational challenges in persistent poverty counties (those with poverty rates in excess of 20% in each of the last four decennial censuses).

The chart below shows the county's population over the past 70 years and, beside each decennial census population figure, the percentage of the county's adult populace who held at least a bachelor's degree at that time.
The source of all the data is the U.S. Census Bureau, though the higher education data was made easily accessible via this interactive website that the Chronicle of Higher Education posted in January, 2011. This interactive map shows county-level higher education data for every county in the United States, including such data back to 1940.

To put this Newton County data in perspective, note that about 27.5% of adults in the United States are graduates of four-year, bachelors degree programs. Standing alone, this is a shocking figure (shockingly low, that is, in my opinion), but it also points up the severe impoverishment (not only fiscally, but intellectually) of Newton County.

For me, a striking thing about this Newton County data is how it fails in some ways to parallel national trends. The 1950s and 1960s are often discussed as the boom years in higher education in the United States because so many men were able to take advantage of the GI Bill following WWII. But this interactive map indicates that the growth in those with college degrees has been relatively steady over the decades, rising from 4.4% in 1940 to 7.7% in 1960 to 16.2% in 1980 to 24.4% in 2000. The gain has typically been 4-5% each decade. The biggest leap in a single decade came between 1970 and 1980--a rise from 10.7% to 16.2%, or 5.5%.

The pattern in Newton County has been more one that reflects fits and starts. During the decade between 1950 and 1960, the county's percentage of adults with college degrees nearly quadrupled--but because it had been so terribly low before the war, this put the county's 1960 figure at only 2.54%. Still, I assume this dramatic increase--like that in the rest of the nation--was largely attributable to the GI Bill.

Newton County's other boom decades--if you could call them that--came between 1970 and 1980 and again between 1990 and 2000. In each of those decades, the percentage of adult college graduates living in the country roughly doubled. What explains that phenomenon? I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that in both decades it was largely attributable to newcomers. In the latter decade in particular, I am guessing the rise in college degrees is a consequence of the county's increasing degree of rural gentrification. Read related posts here and here.Link

Another thing that stands out in this comparison of Newton County with the nation is the fact that, while the county was only about 2% points behind the nation in terms of college education in 1940, today the county is more than 15% points behind the nation. This seems just another manifestation of the growing spatial inequalities in our nation. Nationally, the percentage of young adults with college degrees in 2000 was only half that of the average city. (Read more at pp 131-132 of The Big Sort). This data also surely supports the idea of a negative feedback loop about education in a place where shockingly few have achieved higher education. After all, one consequence of this "under-education" is the dearth of well educated role models in places like Newton County.

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