Iowa towns ‘a microcosm’ of rural degree attainment challenges, ambitions

Noting that high school students living in rural areas are less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to pursue college immediately following graduation, The Gazette recently explored rural Iowa as a “microcosm of what’s been dubbed a rural higher education crisis.” The low degree attainment is especially concerning given projections showing that 68 percent of Iowa’s careers will require postsecondary education by 2025.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 32 percent of Iowa jobs in 2025 will require a high school diploma or less, 39 percent will require some college or an associate degree, 21 percent will require a bachelor’s degree, and 8 percent will require a graduate degree. To meet these needs, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in April signed the Future Ready Iowa plan, which establishes apprenticeship, mentoring, and intern programs to ensure that 70 percent of the state’s workforce obtains post-high school training or education by 2025.

Yet, the percentage of residents with an associate degree or higher hovers between 21.4 percent and 29.3 percent in many of Iowa’s more rural counties, compared with 57.6 percent to 61 percent attainment in its most educated counties. This dynamic extends beyond Iowa, too, with data from the National Student Clearinghouse showing that high-income white students from rural America are less likely to enroll in college than high-income white students from urban America.

The Iowa College Student Aid Commission further reports that low-income Iowans and Iowans of color—the state’s fastest-growing populations—are less likely to enroll in and graduate from college. This may perpetuate a cycle where “low educational attainment leads to lower salaries, and low-income families often can’t afford—or don’t think they can afford—college,” the Gazette notes.

Iowa institutions stepping up support for underrepresented populations

Hoping to make postsecondary education a bigger part of the conversation in rural Iowa, the state’s public, private, and community colleges are launching initiatives to inform high school students about college access and enrollment. Some target students who might otherwise go directly from high school into farming or a family business, emphasizing, for instance, that “farming is a small business or—depending on the farm—potentially a large business” that requires economic planning, accounting, and many kinds of horticultural calculations.

Iowa universities also are offering scholarships for students from underrepresented populations and hosting events aimed at increasing awareness of and support for first-generation students. The state, meanwhile, has established loan forgiveness programs and launched “local college access networks,” which connect education, civic, business and not-for-profit leaders in support of continuing education.

To see job projections for your state, visit the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce website.

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