LUMBERTON — The percentage of college graduates in Robeson County almost doubled from 1970 and 2010, according to a recent report, but is still far below the state and national levels.
The report, prepared by Bill Bishop, editor of the Daily Yonder, an online news publication published by the Center for Rural strategies, and Robert Gallardo, an assistant extension professor at the Southern Rural Development Center of Mississippi State University, was based on Census data about the county.
According to the report, in 1970, 6.5 percent of those over 25 years of age in Robeson County had college degrees. By 2010, 12.1 percent of adults here had completed college. The national average was 27.9 percent in 2010, and the North Carolina average was 26.3 percent that year.
The number of adults in the United States with college degrees has nearly tripled since 1970, the report says, when only 10.7 percent of adults had graduated from college. But the percentage of adults with degrees in counties with small cities, such as Robeson County, while increasing, has generally fallen behind the proportion of college-educated residents in urban counties.
The loss of young, well-educated residents has posed a long-standing difficulty for rural communities.
“One of the problems that rural areas face is that in order to get a college education, young people often have to leave,” said Judith Stallmann, an economist at the University of Missouri. “Once you leave, that introduces you to other opportunities that you might not have seen had you not left.”
Charles Chrestman, president of Robeson Community College, said Wednesday that he is not surprised by the report’s findings.
“The importance of higher education is more evident today in the jobs that businesses are seeking to fill,” he said. “In addition to associate and other degrees, businesses are looking for those individuals who have other certifications in their specific fields.”
Chrestman agreed that rural communities like Robeson and surrounding counties are hurt when college-educated young people leave the area and don’t return.
“It’s very hard to get young people to come back with the kind of jobs we have available,” he said.
The good news for rural America is that it has caught up in every other measure of education, the report reads.
In 1970, 7.8 percent of adults in rural counties had some education after high school, but less than a college degree. By 2010, 27.4 percent of rural adults had attained some post high school education without earning a college diploma. That level of education was close to the national average of 28.1 percent.
In Robeson County, 6.2 percent of adults had some college in 1970, but the figure rose to 23.7 percent in 2010. The North Carolina average in 2010 was 35 percent. Robeson County had 39,227 adults — defined as those over 25 years of age — in 1970 and 81,721 in 2010.
Chrestman said that the presence of Robeson Community College and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke in the county have been key factors in educating area residents and preparing them for current and future jobs.
“If RCC and UNCP were not here, what condition would be in?” he said.
Overall, Stallmann says, the trends show that “rural people have responded to the demand for increased job skills by the increasing their post secondary education.”
In 2010, 31.3 percent of the adults in Robeson County had failed to graduate from high school. Nationally, 15 percent of adults had not completed high school, and in North Carolina, the rate was 16.4 percent.
Stallmann said that is a reflection of the kinds of jobs that are generally available in rural communities. If there are fewer jobs demanding college degrees in a community, there are likely to be fewer college graduates.
“It’s a big deal in a lot of rural counties because you don’t see a lot of jobs that require a college education,” Stallmann said.
There can be a “self-reinforcing cycle” in rural communities, Stallmann said. Young people leave to gain higher education, they don’t come back after college because there aren’t jobs that demand such education, and their absence diminishes the chances that more of these kinds of jobs will be created.