It’s back to school season here in North Dakota, and students are settling into their classrooms. Similar to other states in the country’s heartland, many North Dakota students live and study in rural communities – providing for unique benefits and challenges. Growing up in the small towns scattered across North Dakota, like Jamestown where I grew up, teaches young people determination, hard work, and respect for your neighbors. Unfortunately, young people in rural communities are also faced with an educational attainment gap, too few schools, and a shrinking number of teachers. We need to close the gap between rural students and their metropolitan and suburban peers – ensuring that every young person, regardless of zip code, is able to thrive.
North Dakota’s rural students, like rural students across the United States, face lower educational attainment than their peers who live in metropolitan areas. In 2017, one in five rural Americans held a bachelor’s degree, and a total of 50 percent had some college credits or held a degree. North Dakota, to the credit of our students and educators, is above this average, with 31 percent of North Dakotans holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, but this is still behind metropolitan areas, where 34 percent of residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.
And this attainment gap makes a difference for rural communities – including those in North Dakota. 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that Americans with only a high school diploma made an average weekly income of $712, while a college graduate made $1,173. To grow the 21st century workforce here in North Dakota, increasing our labor force and raising our wages, we need to level the playing field for our students.
To do that, we need to prioritize access to education and access to educators – and North Dakotans agree. In a poll conducted this week by the One Country Project and the American Federation of Teachers, investment in local infrastructure and K-12 education were the top two priorities for local investment in the state.
It’s a fact of life that rural Americans have to travel more than others in their daily lives, but distance can’t be a barrier to better education. Today, a third of rural, college-aged students don’t live within 25 miles of a college or university, or community college. This problem is also pervasive for rural K-12 students, with almost 9,000 public school districts having four or fewer schools. This basic lack of infrastructure forces rural students and educators to travel farther to older, and often ill-equipped, schools.
Rural educators are masters of doing more with less, but this should no longer be the status quo. For this reason, among many, there is a critical teacher shortage in rural America, and nationwide. Starting salaries for rural educators and principals are on average $7,300 less and $20,000 less, respectively, than their colleagues in metropolitan areas. Thankfully in North Dakota, we are paying above the national average starting salary for rural teachers, with the National Education Association reporting in 2018, starting North Dakotan teachers earned approximately $38,600. But there is more we can do to stymie the constant churn of rural educators and help provide the best education for our young people.
Our rural students work hard in the classroom, many spending their free time helping run a small family business or family farm. These students rely on policy makers to help remove the roadblocks that make navigating their education difficult. We need to set these students up for educational success and help sustain our way of life by educating the 21st century workforce here in North Dakota.