In Tennessee, about a third of working-age residents have a college degree. In a few counties, the college degree rate drops to fewer than one in 10. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam thinks that's a fundamental economic problem in the South worth trying to fix.
Though money is a factor, government officials cite an even bigger barrier: students don’t necessarily see why they need a college education.
Kevin Brown is a senior at Hickman County High School. It’s a county where 92 percent graduate from high school and few go any further. "It’s our life," says Brown. "We can do what we want."
During college day at Hickman High, recruiters from universities like Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech have set up shop at tables in the gym. Even though they're equipped with tables covered with brochures, water bottles and key chains, college is a tough sell here.
Standing with a group of friends, Brown says his parents want him to at least learn a trade, like his older brother did.
"They don’t want me being a bum, but I don’t think college is for everybody," Brown says. "You can go and waste a lot of money and not know what you’re going to do."
Money is a real issue in this rural county, an hour outside of Nashville. Roughly half the students at Hickman come from poor families, but scholarships and aid are available, says Hickman principal Phillip Jacobs. What’s really missing, according to Jacobs, is a good push from mom and dad.
"If the parents are sending one message, and the schools are sending another, then the student is going to take the easier of the two paths," Jacobs says.
Jacobs speaks from experience. He graduated from Hickman County High in 1990, and was the first in his family to attend college, but his parents always reminded him where he was headed.
"It was never an option that we wouldn’t be expected to go," he says.
Back then, many of his classmates went straight to work in one of a few local factories making Levi’s jeans. That factory closed in 1997. Jacobs still hears students say they plan to go get a factory job. He asks, "where?"
"Those things are gone and they’re not coming back," Jacobs says. "I don’t think a lot of our folks have latched onto the fact that education is the way out of that." But, creating a college culture where there isn’t one can be tough.
Mae Rosson became a local hairdresser after the Levi’s plant she worked at closed. She started cutting hair at a barbershop on the Centerville town square. While she works, she talks about how her five kids followed her lead from high school straight to work, forgoing college. It’s a common generational cycle.
"They were just ready to get a job and make some money and buy them a car," Rosson says. "Just didn’t think about college."
Gov. Haslam launched a multi-year campaign to try and change that cycle. His goal? At least a two-year degree for 55 percent of working-age adults. That’s roughly the college attainment rate of Massachusetts.
"This really becomes like everything else that’s really important -- a moral challenge," Haslam said to business leaders in Nashville. "It becomes important for us to say we won’t accept having a percentage of our population that gets left behind."
Haslam points to a Georgetown University study, commissioned by the state, that shows incomes for high school graduates in Tennessee fell $1,000 every year. Over the same period since 2007, incomes for college grads rose.
But for some, not attending college is a conscious decision.
Kristy McCaleb owns a flower shop in Hickman County, and her daughter will graduate high school this year.
"I could push and I could pressure her and say, 'You’ve got to go to college,'" McCaleb says. "If that’s not what she wants, she’s not going to put forth the effort. And why go?"
McCaleb says she's willing to make the financial sacrifice to put her daughter through school. But, she points out that leaving Hickman for college isn't an easy decision. There’s not much to do with a college degree in the county, if you want to come back home to live near family and friends.
"You can’t make money piddlin’ around here," McCaleb says.
While raising expectations for students sounds like the easiest fix to bump up college-going rates, it might also be the hardest.