Everyone knows how important education is for the economic prospects of a community or region. But who would have thought that low education attainment levels would lead to a scarcity of supermarkets?
Eden, a town of about 16,000 in Rockingham County, North Carolina, found this out the hard way in 2005, when one of the community’s few groceries closed and the locals got up a petition asking a supermarket chain to open a new store. They already had a site picked out and gathered around 2000 signatures. But the supermarket chain took a pass on Eden. The reason: the percentage of residents with college degrees—about 10.8 percent—was considered too low.
Every year, a couple of statewide education groups sponsor a College Application Week. About 113 colleges and universities participate and 25 of them actually waive their application fees for the week to encourage more kids to apply. In 2006, a total of zero kids from Eden applied for college during College Application Week.
In the old days, all it took was a high school education to make a decent living working in the local textile mills, but in the 1990s, the U.S. textile industry tanked, and many workers lost their jobs and faced grim prospects for competing in the new economy.
Eden has made impressive strides and is recovering from the textile collapse. Citizens came up with a new motto: “Eden: the Land of Two Rivers,” drawing on its geography at the confluence of the Dan and the Smith rivers, and began to focus on protecting and promoting the local waterways. River outfitters now offer canoe and kayak tours. Tourism has increased along with motel occupancy rates.
In 2008, eight Eden citizens launched a grassroots movement to promote higher education, modeling their program on a similar one in nearby Patrick County, Virginia. Visiting the program in Virginia, they found out about the College Advising Corps, a program that hires recent college graduates to work with high school students from low income families to help them become first generation college students.
The activists merged with an existing community group to form the Eden Education Foundation, and later, broadening their focus, the Rockingham County Education Foundation. Working with the University of North Carolina, the group brought in two new college counselors to split their time between four county high schools advising kids who had never seen themselves as potential college grads.
It may seem like a small or obvious thing, beefing up the high school counseling program, but it’s not. These days overworked high school counselors spend an average of less than 20 percent of their time advising kids about college, according to one survey, but their help is essential, especially for first generation learners.
At the All-America City Awards in Kansas last June, Eden brought several kids from the local high schools who described how a counselor, named Mr. Woodard, had helped them through the daunting process of applying for college and scholarship money, rallying them, encouraging them, and bugging college admissions offices on their behalf. These were kids whose parents had never gone to college and had no idea what to do. One compared the process of applying to college to being in a foreign country.
I mentioned already that no kids from Eden had applied for college during College Application Week in 2006. A year later it was 22. By 2009, the number increased to 583. In 2010, seniors from the four schools earned more than $17 million in scholarships, an increase of about 44 percent from the year before. Small steps, perhaps, on the road to getting more kids in college.
Eden was one of ten AAC winners in 2010. You can watch their presentation to the AAC jury
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.