The following article was originally published by NCPR on May 3, 2021

The Issue

If you’re just entering the workforce and looking for a job that pays above minimum wage, chances are it requires a college degree or some form of secondary education. But if you grew up in a small town in a rural area, you’re less likely to have that.

Rick Dalton is the CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways, a national organization that works on college and career readiness. It’s based in the North Country, in the town of Essex in Essex County. Dalton says while students in rural America, like the North Country, graduate high school at relatively high rates, they’re less likely to get a degree.

“Fewer rural students go on to college. And then you see that rural kids are much more likely to not complete a degree. To drop out.”

Dalton says that leaves them behind in the modern job market, because “95% of the jobs that are being created that pay a livable wage, allow them to buy a house, to buy a car, to support a family, those jobs require post-secondary education. And there’s no getting around it.”

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has been tracking this sort of data for a long time. A recent report predicts that by 2027, 70% of all jobs will require some education beyond high school. And those jobs overall pay better.

Barriers and mistrust

But the idea that everyone needs to go to college isn’t a universally loved idea. There are alternative routes in the North Country and the nation for high school graduates, including ones that get kids right into well-paying industrial work.

Dalton acknowledges there’s a lot of distrust of higher education.

“There certainly is more pushback today than there was 30 years ago. Even ten years ago, in rural communities.”

For low-income families, college in any form can seem out of reach financially. Higher education is expensive. Loans are a burden. And sending a child to college can feel like sending a child away, for good, says Dalton. “So families are looking at the college experience, and saying: if my kid goes off to college, he or she can’t return, and can’t return to our small town, and live here full time.”

Education around options

Dalton and his colleagues want to change that perception and close that rural opportunity gap, by making kids and families more familiar and comfortable with higher education, and the different options that are available to them. Dalton says, “there are so many different types of 4-year universities, and 2-year colleges, and again, opportunities that provide certificates. What kind of institution is going to best help me get to where I want to be?”

Helping students answer that question is what drives Brett McClelland. He works at Brilliant Pathways. For the last two years, he’s worked in seven different North Country schools under a federal grant, GEAR UP, meant to increase the number of low-income students in post-secondary education.

He says the last two years have really taught him ‘the importance of creating a culture of college and career readiness.’ They build that culture through mentorship programs, connecting kids to college students in areas they’re interested in.

He brings in businesses and companies in – or over video chat – to talk through different careers at their organizations. An airline might talk about careers in mechanical aviation. Sometimes McClelland says it’s about finding a path in a field that a student is interested in. Say they want to work in a hospital, but find the idea of 10+ years of school intimidating.

“Some students back up and say ‘I don’t want to do that.’ It’s our job to connect our students with those other opportunities, ” says McClelland. They might bring in a prosthetic arm and someone to explain phlebotomy. “That’s a 8-month certificate program, that provides a great livable wage, that still allows them to wear scrubs to work every day and work in a hospital.”

McClelland emphasized the power of knowing the options available to a student. That it’s not a PhD, or nothing.

“They’re taking ownership of the goals that they set, and the paths that they create for themselves.”

A new Fall 2021 Program: North Country Brilliant Pathways

This fall, McClelland will be heading up a new initiative for CFES Brilliant Pathways, called North Country Brilliant Pathways. They’ll be working with 20 schools for three years, on college and career readiness.

Rick Dalton, the CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways, published a book on the rural opportunity gap earlier this month and wanted to make a bigger commitment in the company’s backyard.

“And what we hope is that there are 20 schools, let’s say 4000 students, who are a little bit more ready for college. They’re going to be much more likely to stay in college and get that degree.”

Most high schools already have college counselors. Dalton says they’re trying to expand that effort, with things like mentorship programs that help students really imagine what their college experience could be like.

Dalton says another thing that sets them apart is that they’re trying to connect with kids of all ages. CFES will foot the cost, and they’re still looking for elementary, middle, and high schools to participate in Northeastern NY and Vermont. Interested schools can apply until May 14.

Dalton says they ultimately “want to make sure that our young people in the North Country aren’t left on the sidelines. That they can be a part of the 21st-century economy.”

By Amy Feiereisel