America’s Poorest Colleges Get Poorer

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The Chronicle of Higher Education put out its annual salary survey for 2011/2012. Most of the headlines about the study centered on full professor pay at Harvard, which averaged $198,400. Professors at nine universities made more than $175,000 on average last year. The other end of the list of 1,251 colleges also is worth a look. It says as much about the state of higher education in the United States as the Harvard numbers do.

At the bottom of the list were a handful of the top teachers who made less than $50,000 — and in some case much less. That is hardly enough to draw quality faculty, at least as it is measured by better schools. But colleges like Brevard, Kentucky Christian, Union College (in Kentucky), Tennessee Weslyan, Lakawanna, St. Andrews University and Lees-Mcrae cannot do any better. Most of these are in areas with extremely high poverty rates and extremely low median incomes. The unemployment rates and health care systems are poor in nearly all of the areas were these colleges are located as well.

Brevard’s campus is in the Southern Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Lees-Mcrae is in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Lakawanna, Kentucky Christian and Union College are based in some of the poorest regions of Kentucky. Although the Chronicle of Higher Education does not report it, most of the students of these colleges are from the economically troubled areas around them, almost certainly.

Education quality joins the nearly insurmountable list of regional problems that the federal government cannot overcome, at least as Congress drives toward more austerity programs. The problem is acute in the public schools. Most of the areas where poor education is an issue are also ones where there are poverty and home value problems as well. All education is local, the same way all housing problems are. If the troubles with poor eduction are to be addressed, it needs to be on that local level. There is no way to get better faculty and facilities at Lakawanna and Kentucky Christian without some outside help. And, there is no reason to believe that the help will be forthcoming.

The American colleges that cannot field at least relatively strong faculties cannot provide educations for their students that allow them much more than a chance to work in communities that are already crippled, if they can find jobs at all.

Douglas A. McIntyre