Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center writes about the role higher education can play in boosting the economic status of rural North Carolina.

Higher education officials tend to be optimistic about the future of rural counties. A common belief in the University of North Carolina system (and elsewhere in state government) is that the more targeted and strategic it can make its efforts, the more likely that rural towns will have the resources they need to get back on their feet.

In light of those beliefs, the University of North Carolina system has made outreach to rural North Carolina one of its main goals in its current five-year strategic plan. For one, UNC seeks to increase system-wide enrollment of students from rural counties by 11 percent, as well as increase rural students’ college graduation rates 20 percent by the year 2022.

East Carolina University (ECU), which is located in the state’s economically depressed coastal plain, has launched its Rural Prosperity Initiative to further aid rural areas. According to ECU Chancellor Cecil Stanton, “If you look at education disparities, they are far, far more severe in our rural communities.” Stanton continued:

The Rural Prosperity Initiative is a recommitment of our university to bring the resources from across the university…to come together to figure out how we’re going to address those disparities and how we can have an impact across rural North Carolina.

Yet, conditions in rural North Carolina don’t appear to be changing for the better. This is despite the combined efforts of both state and private organizations, many of which have been around for decades.