Many Americans take it for granted that you can't get a good job without having a college degree. But that's not the assumption in parts of rural North Carolina, where people have traditionally made a living in manufacturing or farming. Now these two sectors of the economy are in decline and some say the old attitude towards education won't work anymore.
This year, a local two-year community college has started to offer free tuition to students who wouldn't have considered college otherwise.
The New Century Scholars program is not for gifted students or at-risk students, but for ordinary ones.
It targets kids who aren't likely to have college on their radar screens kids like Cory Broome, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Piedmont Middle School. "That was neat because I've never really won anything at school before," he says.
Cory is one of 60 students in Union County, east of the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, who's been chosen for the scholarship program. Cory is big for his age. He wears glasses; he's polite; he works hard at school. And he's looking forward to two years free at South Piedmont Community College, as long as he meets certain conditions. He has to stay away from drugs and drinking, do community service and graduate from high school.
"It kind of makes me want to improve more in my work and stuff, but it also kind of puts a little bit of pressure on me thinking about if that scholarship's gonna be tooken away," he says.
No one in Cory's family has gone to college except his grandmother, who took a few courses in order to become a teacher's assistant. Cory's parents divorced when he was a baby, and he's lived with his grandparents ever since. He says he owes everything to them.
"I put it in this way: if I was with my mom, I would have probably been raised by the streets. Like, see how my education's doing and I got this scholarship? I wouldn't have this scholarship if I lived with her. 'Cuz she don't care, she has two other kids, my step-brother and step-sister," he says.
Cory's grandparents do care, and they understand the economic changes taking place around them. In their day, Elizabeth White says, you didn't need college to earn a decent living you just needed to work hard.
"Actually, college was out of the question back in our time. I mean, seemed like you could work yourself up to things, you know. It wasn't as much being competitive. I don't think back then a college education was considered as important as it is now," Ms. White says.
That's the reason Lynn Raye persuaded South Piedmont Community College to set up the New Century Scholars Program. Mr. Raye has done all right for himself with just a high school diploma; he owns a successful mechanical contracting company. But he says his path would have been a lot smoother if he'd had more schooling.
"I'm thinking not only about myself, but I'm thinking about a lot of my friends and buddies that this program could have really helped because it touches the ones that are satisfied just to get by. And I'm thinking the potential that's there what it would be if those had the right encouragement, or they had access to some kind of further training," Mr. Raye says.
What's more, Mr. Raye says, rural areas like this one won't be able to meet the economic challenges facing them without more people seeking a better education.
"Even on machinery, now, where you could go in, used to, as just a green apprentice helper, and they could train you on a piece of equipment, a lathe or what not now, all that's computer. You have to have some skills before you can operate some of the simplest equipment," he says.
In nearby rural Anson County, North Carolina, where Lynn Raye grew up, less than two-thirds of the people are high school graduates, and only seven percent are college graduates. Unemployment is in the double digits because the local textile industry which had sustained the area for decades is dying. Next door in Union County, where Mr. Raye lives now, the situation is better. But many businesses there are having a hard time finding well-trained workers.
And that's why Union County Career Education Director Charles Perry is at a local Chamber of Commerce lunch - to sell the New Century Scholars Program.
"Granted, four-year educations are very important. You also realize that the top percentage of any graduating class brain drain the majority of them don't stay in our community. They go out to where the corporations are, the major dollars are," he says.
Mr. Perry tells this group of business leaders they should invest in the young people who are planning to stay around. Their support is important. All the funding for the program is local. Each donation of $500 is put into a foundation to collect interest. By the time a seventh-grader graduates from high school, there will be enough money for two years at South Piedmont Community College. Mr. Perry's pitch wins over Teddy Griffin, who owns a local construction company.
"By creating a work force that is well-trained and understands the basics of business from that standpoint, I think we'll produce a much better student like this therefore a much better citizen and employee," Mr. Griffin says.
By the time Cory Broome reaches college, there may be hundreds of New Century Scholars in this part of North Carolina. Cory wants to become a scientist, and he knows he needs post-secondary school in order to get that kind of job.
"I don't really think I could live here, without it," Cory says.
Cory wants to stay in Union County. Whether there will be the kind of job he wants in the area is an open question. But he, at least, will have done his part and gotten his education.