Rural areas are far from uniform; western Alaska differs significantly from Mississippi. But the challenges are similar. In eight very different states—South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, California, Arizona, Utah, Alaska, and Washington—high-school graduation rates for rural whites are at least 20 percentage points higher than for rural nonwhites, according to the Rural School and Community Trust.
The United States has more than 2 million rural nonwhite students—about a quarter of all rural students—and they comprise the majority of rural students in Alaska, Arizona, California, and New Mexico, a state where 85 percent of rural students are nonwhite.
In Alaska, a significant number of rural students are native Alaskan. The Bering Strait School District has nearly 2,000 students; nearly all are indigenous Alaskans.
For many of them, a high-school diploma is far more important than a bachelor’s degree, said Bobby Bolen, the Unalakleet-based district’s superintendent. And that’s what the district pushes.
“Their parents didn’t go to college, a lot of them,” Bolen said. His students “can always choose to go to college later, and some of them do, but we want them to get that high-school education. To get that diploma gives you options, whether or not you do anything with them.”
In largely rural Hinds County, Mississippi, about 70 percent of the population is black. It can be difficult to push students there toward a college degree, said Yolanda Houston, who directs the teacher preparation program at the 800-student Hinds Community College.
“Agriculture is a way of life in northwestern Mississippi,” Houston said. “If your family were farmers or factory workers, sometimes it’s not as important to take that next step to community college or a four-year university.”
But the opportunities and economic returns in rural industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, and mining have been eroding. A typical agriculture worker makes $22,540 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and mechanization has steadily reduced demand for them; the government projects zero growth in agriculture through at least 2026.
Montana’s seven Native American reservations have only a 66 percent high-school graduation rate, 22 percentage points lower than for white students in that state, according to Mandy Smoker Broaddus, Montana’s director of Indian education.
“I’ve seen a lack of academic rigor and expectations” at reservation schools, Smoker Broaddus said. “It’s just sort of become part of the fabric. A lack of exposure to what rigor or high expectations look like makes it difficult for educators or children to picture them.”
Some reservation schools have tried to get at the reasons for high truancy numbers by adding onsite medical clinics, making it less likely children will miss school to drive an hour or more to the nearest clinic. And plagued by the challenges of teacher recruitment, reservations have tried to get more college graduates to return home to teach.