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Students in Trump's forgotten America: Are they learning to leave?

President-elect Donald Trump promised rural and Rust Belt communities he would bring back jobs by reviving declining industries. "Let me tell you: the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again, believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners,” he said.

Trump's appeal to what's described as America's forgotten communities raises an interesting question for schools in areas where jobs and hopes have waned: Should students be encouraged to stay and stem the population losses that have decimated rural America or pack their bags for greater opportunities elsewhere? Will their learning result in their leaving?

According to the federal government, population growth rates in nonmetro areas have been significantly lower than in metro areas since the mid-1990s with the gap widening in recent years. While 72 percent of the United States is  considered rural, it is home to only about 15 percent of the nation's residents.

Rural teachers say family resistance keeps bright kids from applying to colleges out of the area, bypassing four-year universities for local community colleges. A Texas Tech University study found while 70 percent of students in metro areas enroll in more schooling after high school, only 64 percent of rural students do so.

Of those rural students, 47 percent opt for two-year institutions, compared to 38 percent of their urban peers. Why is that important? Because more selective colleges have higher completions rates and their graduates get higher-paying jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree was $57,252 a year, compared to $41,184 for an associate's degree.

As a nation, Americans have long uprooted their lives for better prospects. Many displaced coal miners came from families that migrated to the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s in search of jobs in what was then a burgeoning industry. But coal mining collapsed because of cheaper and cleaner energy sources and because fewer workers were needed in the era of strip mining and automation.

Should schools revere a past unlikely to come back -- unless taxpayers subsidize it -- or point students to a future that may entail forsaking their rural roots?

As the Wall Street Journal reported: "Rural America—which encompasses roughly three-quarters of the nation's landmass—has seen slower population growth for a decade, as more young people move to urban and suburban areas for jobs and even aging retirees seek out more-populated places to live. Such developments present a mixed bag for the economy as a whole: While ongoing population losses mean mounting challenges for remote rural areas, most economists see the movement of workers to better jobs in more populous areas as a sign of a healthy, efficient economy."

This discussion transcends borders. A Chinese official set off a debate a few years ago with her comment that rural Chinese students shouldn't be encouraged to leave farms and seek university educations. Her reason: They won't be as academically advanced as their urban peers and end up in the cities working at lower-level positions rather than returning home where they could help their families.

In researching the exodus from small town America, I came across a quote from Georgia football legend Herschel Walker: Coming from a small town it was really tough to dream big. When I grew up in a small town in Georgia, my biggest dream was one day to be able to go to Atlanta, Georgia. To be able to go to Atlanta, which was about two hours and 45 minutes from my home. So, to dream about going to Atlanta was it.





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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.