Report: Those Left Behind Gaps in College – Attainment by Race and Geography

Posted by Center for American Progress on July 16, 2019

Introduction and summary

In the heart of the Arkansas Delta lies Lee County, a rural area with a deep history. Cotton, an industry sustained by slaves and, later, African American sharecroppers, once ruled Lee County.1 To this day, the majority of the county’s residents are black and, like in many rural areas across the country, the population is declining.2 One hundred years ago, during its height, Lee County was home to nearly 30,000 people, but its population is now one-third of that size.3 Nearly a quarter of the county’s residents live in poverty,4 and just 13 percent of adults have an associate degree or higher.5 High school dropouts outnumber college graduates 2-to-1.6

These low rates may be in part caused by Lee County’s distance from many college options. A student living in the county seat, Marianna, for example, would have to drive 18 miles to get to the nearest community college campus—more than twice as far as the average community college student typically commutes.7 The next closest option, a for-profit beauty school, lies about 40 minutes away. The closest four-year, public, in-state option would require a four-hour round trip.

Two hours west, Pulaski County, the home of Little Rock, offers a stark contrast. There, the population has more than tripled in the same time frame.8 The poverty rate is half that of Lee County,9and about 40 percent of adults have at least an associate degree.10 Thirty-six colleges lie within the county limits, including three historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).11

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