Rural, socio-economic issues of youth in North Carolina: Why do they matter?

A Rural Sunset

The Agricultural and Human Sciences department would like to introduce a new monthly blog called The Student Narrative. This blog will feature assignments from courses offered within the department that are completed by students. For the November post, we have an assignment from the YFCS 553 course (Applied Concepts in Child and Youth Development) which was completed by YFCS Graduate Students Angelena Castro, Kimberley Cheatham and Allison Matthews.

“If you’re not 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 counselor and grandmother

Siyanna Webster (14) of Lilesville, NC shared that in her rural community; resources and opportunities for advancement are limited and generally accompanied by a fee.  This is not an uncommon plight of youth living in rural communities in North Carolina who are often plagued with the side-effects of low socio-economic issues.  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. Click here to learn more about rural vs. urban on page 3, of a Center for Public Education publication.

What do we mean by socio economic issues?

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

Siyanna shares, “In my hometown, the only opportunities available for youth my age are school sports teams.” Her hometown of Lilesville is a rural town situated in Anson County, 90 minutes from three major North Carolina cities: Charlotte, Greensboro, and Fayetteville. Many of the county’s youth must seek opportunities across county lines.  With an interest in STEM, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Siyanna usually travelled to Charlotte to participate in the NC- MSEN Pre-College Program at UNC Charlotte. This was expensive and time consuming, considering the commute. 


Rural communities are often characterized with high levels of poverty. North Carolina is home to 568,000 rural students, the second largest population compared to the other states. Nearly one in six of rural students in North Carolina live below the poverty line.  As we try to build an effective system of support within North Carolina for the improvement of the lives of rural youth we have to look at the challenges that accompany impoverished communities, including limitations in the following areas:  

  • Healthcare

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 as 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 within rural communities are not likely to have broadband internet access within their home for research and schoolwork. This causes low academic performance which has a domino effect. Studies have shown that students with no or weak broadband internet access are less likely to attend college. Digital skills are also underdeveloped in these areas, which is a predictor to standardized test performance.

  • Advanced Placement classes

AP coursework and extracurricular opportunities are not as easily accessed by students as they are to urban students. This lack of advanced coursework and extracurricular, where they can gain experience, leads rural students to believe that they are lacking.  This leads to rural students “undermatching” themselves when applying to colleges and universities- causing the college attainment gap between rural and urban students to widen. 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 within rural areas. This leads to students underperforming and not gaining skills, interest, and experience in areas they would like to pursue, such as performance arts, athletics, and academic clubs. Extracurricular activities have positive effects on students including reducing behavioral problems, higher grades, leadership and teamwork skills, broadening social circles, and positive attitudes. Overall, the biggest 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 –  Importance Gauge, Student and Family Diversity Gauge, Educational Policy Context Gauge, Educational Outcomes Gauge, and College Readiness Gauge.  In this instance, being at the top of the list actually means the situation is quite dire.  

The main three sources of school funding for NC 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.

  • State Funding: North Carolina’s 2020-21 fiscal budget exceeded $10 billion.   Currently, there are three main categories for funds distributed by the NC school finance system:
  1. Position Allotments (approximately 65% of the state’s allocation) – enables funds to pay educators. A downside to this process is that it is restricted to only pay for educators.  This process does not enable variation among teacher pay based on years of experience.
  2. Dollar Allotments (approximately 11% of the state’s allocation) – enables funds for non-certified positions and purchase goods. Unfortunately, vacancies or unused funds must be returned to the state.  
  3. Categorical allotments (approximately 23% of the state’s allocation) – enables funds for targeted programming, such as At Risk Student Services, Children with Disabilities.  
  • Federal Funding: Federal funds are awarded to states in the form of 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 
  • Challenges: While each district has unique attributes, given the manner of funding, they share challenges.

1. Quality Teachers – Attracting and retaining educators to teach 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 performing 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 previously provided to public schools, since enrollment drives funding.  The flexibility afforded to charter schools makes them quite appealing to families.  Unfortunately, the impact on the 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 impact rural families. Students suffer when there are vacancies and/or teacher changes during the academic year.  Parents are often stretched thin and have limited time to focus on the parental acts that are critical to youth development.  Additionally, they often lack the educational background possessed by parents in higher socio-economic communities.

Since COVID-19, the problem has been magnified for Siyanna.  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.” 

Juanita Webster, a local elementary school counselor and Siyanna’s grandmother, 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 available for youth in nearly 20 years. 

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

Societal Impact

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

These challenges that rural students face have an impact on them throughout their lives. This affects higher education, occupations, and ultimately the economy. 

What can you do?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)  replaced the  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and has its own 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, professionals within the business community can collaborate with districts to provide relevant skill development opportunities.  This 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 not only equitable, but 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.