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YFCS 553 – Socio-economic issues of rural NC youth: Why do they matter?

Welcome to “The Student Narrative,” a new monthly blog series. This blog will feature student assignments from courses within the department. The November 2021 post features an assignment from YFCS 553 – Applied Concepts in Child and Youth Development, completed by YFCS graduate students Angelena Castro, Kimberley Cheatham and Allison Matthews.

Siyanna Webster, a 14-year-old teen from Lilesville, North Carolina, shared that resources and opportunities for advancement are limited and generally accompanied by a fee in her rural community. This is not an uncommon plight of youth living in rural areas in North Carolina who are often plagued with the side effects of low socio-economic issues. The issues associated with poverty and inflexible school funding intertwine and limit success outcomes for rural youth.

What do we mean by “rural?

The term “rural” is a multidimensional concept that encompasses many different things, depending on your source. The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as anything that is not urban. (Learn more on page 3 of the Center for Public Education’s Rural School Report.)

What do we mean by socio-economic issues?

Socio-economic refers to the social and behavioral interactions between a group of people and their financial habits.

Webster shares, “In my hometown, the only opportunities available for youth my age are school sports teams.” Lilesville is a rural town in Anson County, about 90 minutes from three major cities: Charlotte, Greensboro and Fayetteville. Many of the county’s youth must seek opportunities across county lines. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Webster, who is interested in STEM, usually traveled to Charlotte to participate in the NC- MSEN Pre-College Program at UNC Charlotte. The commute was expensive and time-consuming. 

“If you’re note interested in throwing a football or cheerleading, there’s not much around here for our kids. Parents have to travel further away for opportunities and resources.” – Juanita Webster, an elementary school counseor and grandmother


High levels of poverty often characterize rural communities. North Carolina is home to 568,000 rural students, the second-largest population compared to the other states. Nearly one in six of those rural students live below the poverty line. As we try to build an effective system of support within the state for improving the lives of rural youth, we must look at the challenges that accompany impoverished communities, including limitations in the following areas:  


These youth do not have easy access to health care, and North Carolina lacks primary care and behavioral health providers in rural areas. We see increased rates of diabetes, drug use, overdoses, and heart disease in rural areas compared to other areas within North Carolina. 62% of rural students in North Carolina qualify for free or reduced lunch compared to 46% of urban students. The poor nutrition and healthcare in these rural communities lead to students becoming ill more often and not recovering as fast, taking them out of school.

Internet Access

Most socioeconomically disadvantaged students in rural communities are not likely to have broadband internet access in their homes for schoolwork. The result is low academic performance, which has a domino effect. Studies have shown that students with weak or no broadband internet access are less likely to attend college. Digital skills among students are also underdeveloped in these areas, which is a predictor of standardized test performance.

Advanced Placement Classes

Advanced Placement (AP) coursework and extracurricular opportunities are not as easily accessible to rural students as urban students. This lack of advanced coursework and extracurriculars, where they can gain experience, leads rural students to believe that they are lacking. Those rural students then “undermatch” themselves when applying to colleges and universities, causing a widening of the college attainment gap between rural and urban students. One influence of this is that most jobs in rural areas do not require higher education, so they do not see the benefits.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are limited in rural areas, leading to students underperforming and not gaining skills, interest, and experience in activities they would like to pursue, such as performance arts, athletics and academic clubs. Extracurricular activities positively affect students, including reducing behavioral problems, higher grades, leadership and teamwork skills, broadening social circles, and positive attitudes. Overall, the most significant influence that extracurricular activities have on students is the likelihood of school completion, especially on students at risk of failure.

School Funding 

North Carolina’s per-pupil instructional spending lags behind the national average by more than $1,000. North Carolina ranks second (tied with Alabama) with respect to five key gauges that allow comparisons of rural education: (1) importance gauge, (2) student and family diversity gauge, (3) educational policy context gauge, (4) educational outcomes gauge, and (5) college readiness gauge. In this instance, being at the top of the list means the situation is quite dire.  

The three main sources of school funding in North Carolina are state funds, local funds and federal funds. The existing distribution method has not resulted in closing gaps, suggesting that more money is not necessarily the answer but rather how the money is spent.

chart of county-level spending in North Carolina.
County-level spending per student.

Local Funding: In North Carolina, counties are responsible for building, maintaining and equipping school facilities using a percentage of sales taxes while allowing counties to issue bonds. Localities often supplement other areas to meet shortfalls or provide enhancements. The low tax-base base in rural counties contributes to the disparity in the quality of education among the state’s school districts.    

State Funding: North Carolina’s 2020-21 fiscal budget exceeded $10 billion.   Currently, there are three main categories of funds distributed by the NC school finance system. Position allotments (approximately 65% of the state’s allocation) enable funds to pay educators. A downside to this process is that it is restricted to only paying for educators. This process does not allow variation in teacher pay based on years of experience. Dollar allotments (approximately 11% of the state’s allocation) enable funds for non-certified positions and purchase goods. Unfortunately, vacancies or unused funds must be returned to the state.  
Categorical allotments (approximately 23% of the state’s allocation) enable funds for targeted programming, such as At-Risk Student Services and Children with Disabilities.  

Federal Funding: Federal funds are awarded to states in direct grants, state applications, state plans, or a combination of the three. In 2015-16, North Carolina received $1,440,865,436 in federal funding. 

While each district has unique attributes, given the manner of funding, they share challenges:

  1. Quality Teachers – Attracting and retaining educators in rural communities can be challenging. In addition to low salaries, there is often limited access to quality professional development. In some instances, teachers in low-wealth counties are sometimes tasked with teaching in a subject area that differs from their area of expertise and to perform additional jobs. It is not surprising that 25 of the 30 districts with the highest turnover rate are in rural counties.   
  2. Charter Schools – No longer capped at 100, the increasing number of charter schools is siphoning funding that was before provided to public schools since enrollment drives funding. The flexibility afforded to charter schools makes them quite appealing to families. Unfortunately, the impact on public schools is tragic. While the state’s allotment is reduced because of a dip in enrollment, the costs of many associated expenses are not changed. 
  3. Families – These challenges that impact rural education systems also affect rural families. Students suffer when there are vacancies and teacher changes during the academic year. Parents are often stretched thin and have limited time to focus on the parental acts critical to youth development. Additionally, they often lack the educational background of parents in higher socio-economic communities.

Since COVID-19, the problem has been magnified for Webster. Her high school is operating on a hybrid schedule, and opportunities for extracurricular engagement are fewer. “I wish there was a local center that hosted programs for kids with interests outside of sports,” she says. 

Webster’s grandmother, Juanita Webster, a local elementary school counselor, believes that the elected county officials “leave its youth out of the big picture.” She is a native of Anson County and has not seen a change in opportunities for youth in nearly 20 years. 

The Anson County Chamber of Commerce hosts “Young Professionals Anson.” Its mission “is to provide an environment for individuals between the ages of 21 to 39 to meet and develop socially and professionally.” The registration fee is $60. While this is a great concept, it only engages youth who have made it to a level of success, not the younger generation.

Societal Impact

Rural and urban areas are linked economically, socially and environmentally.

The challenges of rural students impact them throughout their lives and affect higher education, occupations, and ultimately, the economy. 

Rural counties with low levels of educational attainment have worse economic outcomes, which affect the state’s economy and can spread. The correlation between low education and poverty in rural areas is an endless cycle that needs to be addressed. 

Rural schools can “influence the economy directly by their effect on workers’ earnings.” Those graduating from rural high schools earn less than those graduating from suburban high schools – leading to the rural-suburban gap disappearing. 

What can you do?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and has its accountability systems as well as a Rural Education Achievement Fund (REAP). It is noteworthy that 31 states “reported plans to use their Title II funding for professional development.” To augment the limitations of local budgets, the business community can collaborate with districts to provide relevant skill development opportunities, which would assist states in meeting the ESSA requirement to engage community stakeholders.  

Additionally, community partners can participate in “place-based education.” Rural communities are routinely mentioned as having deficits; place-based education highlights the strengths within communities. There are stories to tell; help tell them while also giving youth a boost in their source of pride in their community and test scores, too!

Once more of the business community realizes how poverty disadvantages students, how school funding limits creative solutions, and how society, in general, suffers, actionable steps can occur. The business community can join efforts to provide opportunities that are both equitable and liberating for youth with rural backgrounds. We encourage businesses and corporations to explore options for investing in North Carolina’s rural youth through scholarships, internships, and mentorship programs.