student loans

New graduates line up for Bergen Community College commencement in East Rutherford, N.J., on May 17, 2018. Americans now owe about $1.7 trillion of student debt, more than twice the size of their credit-card liabilities. Politicians recognize it’s not sustainable and the government is under pressure to act. (Seth Wenig / The Associated Press)

Walt Disney, who grew up in a small Missouri town, liked to say all his success started with a mouse. Former Starbucks CEO Orin Smith, who ended up serving as a Disney board member, might have said it all started in Chehalis, his Western Washington hometown.

Disney and Smith came from small communities at different times, but each had people who gave them good advice as they worked toward their goals.

There were many in Chehalis who encouraged Smith to succeed at our high school, W.F. West, then attend Centralia College, University of Washington and finally Harvard Business School.

Today in Chehalis we’ve formalized the ad-hoc approach that assisted Smith so much; our Student Achievement Initiative means students receive more focused and effective instruction from terrific teachers.

We’re proud that 100% of the 2021 graduating class applied to and was accepted into a post-secondary program.

We’re sharing these details outside of Chehalis because we believe every community could achieve similar results.

The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act, introduced and supported by a bipartisan group in Congress, is a step toward reaching this goal.

This legislation will allow rural communities to design programs that will help their students win in the competitive worldwide economy. The programs will encourage students to earn certificates and degrees that will help them launch their careers and attract new industries to their hometowns.

The bill will support research, data collection and sharing what works. The final programs might look like what we’re doing but might not; the best ideas will bubble up from rural leaders.

We’ve built a strong partnership with Centralia College; data from the class of 2018 shows 54% of W.F. West students attending Centralia College have already earned a credential (the statewide community college average is 33%).

At the same time, we’ve worked with local businesses to learn what skills gaps the workforce is experiencing. As a result, much of our focus is on educating and encouraging students in career technical education as well as science, technology, engineering and math.

This academic intensity is important because nationally, rural students graduate from high schools at higher rates than their urban or suburban peers, yet only 29% of rural 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in college, versus 48% in cities.

Since the 2008 recession, 90% of new jobs have been located in urban areas, with rural communities still lagging after the last economic recovery.

We can’t just keep quiet about the need to raise up rural students and communities. We know of similar initiatives like ours that also are working in the rural parts of Tennessee, Missouri and Texas.

But what about high school students in other parts of our state and across the country? The Success for Rural Students legislation can unleash the creative thinking and essential funding that will make a difference.