What’s white and red and would have been worth thousands in the 18th century?
Yep, a Coke can.
As it turns out, pure aluminum used to be one of the most prized metals in the world.
Aluminum was once so valuable, in fact, that the government of France used to display Fort Knox-style bars of aluminum next to the French crown jewels. The aluminum craze even struck the US back in the 1800s, when we put a six-pound aluminum cap atop the Washington Monument to showcase our wealth and industrial success.
Times have changed, and pure aluminum is no longer scarce. Modern technology allows us to isolate pure aluminum with ease, making it one of the most abundantly used metals in the world.
Things are always more valuable when they’re harder to find.
The same principle applies to education. When it comes to low-population areas, “education deserts” abound, leaving thousands of rural Americans without access to a quality education.
Take my little rural county, for example, where we have a single high school and a small community college campus. If you live around here and those options don’t work for you, get ready to do some driving — the nearest high school is nearly 30 minutes away, and there’s not a public university in a 50 mile radius.
The geography and widespread poverty of rural communities like mine present us with some unique challenges, and education is at the top of that list. Put simply, education means a little more out here in the country.
Rural Areas Are Often Education Deserts
We’ve known for a while that rural Americans fall behind their urban counterparts in income and health care, but access to education is often forgotten.
In a recent study by The Chronicle of Higher Education, researchers found that over 11 million adult Americans live more than an hour away from a public college. Those individuals are mostly concentrated in rural, low-population states like Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana.
Although Kentucky is more populated than those states, that doesn’t mean that access isn’t an issue here.
In the map above from the same study, the green patches indicate areas of the state within a 60 minute drive from a public college. That leaves large swaths of south central and eastern Kentucky, including Appalachia, which could be considered education deserts.
That’s a huge problem. A college education is linked to longer life expectancy, improved health outcomes, and higher earnings, and if you didn’t already know, none of these things are particularly high in Kentucky.
Lacking access to education simply compounds the difficulties faced by disadvantaged people living in rural areas. In communities like mine, a quality education takes on additional value.
It’s Not Just Colleges
A college education isn’t the only thing that means more in rural areas. Elementary, middle and high schools serve as important community hubs and play a vital role in improving living standards in rural towns.
In areas like mine where poverty is generational, malnutrition is widespread, and where households go without broadband connections, schools are often a saving grace for families.
Weekend backpack programs supply students in need with backpacks filled with food items, and family resource centers provide assistance with clothing, medical needs, and even financial relief.
That’s not to say that we get everything right. Rural schools still face an extraordinary amount of teacher turnover, and the school reform movement still has yet to make rural school improvement a meaningful priority.
For most students who live in rural communities, their neighborhood school is all they’ve got. We just don’t have a lot of options, whether charter or traditional, to give families another choice. That fact makes it all the more important to make sure they’re getting the job done.
Photo by J. Stephen Conn, CC-Licensed.