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The view from America’s new political dividing line: the college degree

Students walk the campus of Appalachian State University in Watauga County, N.C., where four-year degrees have become a dividing line between this politically shifting county and its rural neighbors. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

Watauga County, N.C. — In the rural mountains of North Carolina’s High Country, the population of Boone has boomed over the last two decades — and so has its voting power. 

Not everyone is happy about it.

“Are you tired of 6.3 square miles dictating the politics of all of Watauga County?” Melissa Goins Tauche, a Republican candidate for county commissioner, asks in a recent radio ad.

Not that long ago the politics of Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University, were aligned with its western North Carolina neighbors. Back in 2000, George W. Bush won here by a 13-point margin, as Watauga joined surrounding counties in picking the Republican for president. 

By 2020, 53 percent of Watauga voters backed Joe Biden. The counties next door, including Alleghany and Ashe, became even more Republican, moving more than 12 points further in that direction, with more than 72 percent choosing Donald Trump.

One of the biggest dividing lines? Education. Here in the High Country, Watauga County has long stood out. More than 40 percent of its residents hold a bachelor’s degree, well above North Carolina’s average of 32 percent. In Alleghany and Ashe Counties, about 20 percent do. 

The voting shifts here mirror those in county after county across the United States, where the college degree has become a major marker in presidential politics. Places like Watauga, where high percentages of residents hold a bachelor’s degree, have almost uniformly moved toward Democrats since 2000, according to an Open Campus analysis of election results and U.S. Census Bureau data. Those where below-average proportions of adults have four-year degrees have moved toward Republicans.

The college degree has become a major marker in presidential politics. Places where high percentages of residents hold a bachelor’s degree have almost uniformly moved toward Democrats since 2000. Those where below-average proportions of adults have four-year degrees have moved toward Republicans.

The ties between education and politics haven’t always worked this way. In 2000, people with a college degree were actually slightly more likely to vote for the Republican for president. 

This new dynamic has turned places like Boone into popular political battlefields. Education may now be a statistical dividing line in American politics, but there’s a distinctly physical one on the town’s King Street, where the Watauga County Republicans have opened a campaign office across from Appalachian State University.

“Would you like a judge sign? We need more conservative judges, it’s very important,” says Jean Studeman, a volunteer, as she hands a fresh cup of coffee to a man in faded Army fatigues. 

“Whenever we vote — when we voted for conservative ID laws, for example — the liberal judges take them down.”

Studeman, a former public school teacher, remembers the way her mom took pride in her education while learning Latin and French at a rural public school in central Florida. Studeman doesn’t recognize today’s education system, where students are lucky if they know cursive, much less Latin, by the time they graduate high school.

The disconnect comes in small ways: She rolls her eyes, and asks if the university put him up to it, when her Purdue professor son-in-law puts “he/him” in his email signature. It also manifests in bigger ways, for example, when she hears that third graders have access to books that mention oral sex, referring to one of dozens of books facing bans in Florida.

Studeman sees a decline of culture and of education that are intimately tied, and she doesn’t think one can be fixed without addressing the other. She touts conservative school board candidates like Jennie Hannifan, who is running on her experience homeschooling her four kids as a “Mama Bear” with the slogan: “Freedom: Your Child Your Choice.” 

Around noon, Michele Bouvier, a 75-year-old retiree who lives down the road in Blowing Rock, stops by to pick up campaign signs. She noteshow Boone has changed, and how appalled she was when a pro-choice college student handed her a pamphlet about abortion access at a 4th of July parade a few years back. 

Bouvier was frustrated because she felt abortion was an intensely private matter. “You can’t be passing this out at a family event!” she said, after chasing down the student to hand the flier back. 

A lot has been made of how public distrust in education has grown, particularly among Republicans. There’s talk of resentment, anti-intellectualism, and a view that higher ed is a liberal bastion. But look closer and the sentiments are more complex.

“Rural parents are not naive about the value of education, even if they have complicated feelings about what it means for their family,” says Andrew Koricich, an associate professor at Appalachian State and the executive director of the college’s Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.

When asked, few people in the High Country had any direct criticisms of the university. If they did, the complaints were about the ways it affected their lifestyle, like how the doubling of Appalachian State’s enrollment to more than 20,000 students since the mid-1980s has led to an increased cost of living.

Real estate prices have surged in Watauga County, with university hires buying up homes, leading to higher property taxes. In September, the median home price was $633,000, according to Redfin, nearly doubling from the previous year. At the same time wages have remained stagnant, with a median household income of under $50,000 in 2020.

Some High Country folks have said they had to move further out because they could no longer afford to live around Boone. “The gentrification piece is a tension here,” Koricich says.

Higher education is still prized throughout the region, including in Sparta, the Alleghany County seat. 

It just may look different.

In rural areas like Alleghany, continuing your education often may mean getting a certificate in high school or community college and immediately pursuing a trade. If there is a political connection, it might just be that those pathways often lead to careers that have trended more Republican in recent years. 

The expansion of remote jobs, though, has allowed residents to begin to move past the area’s historic economic drivers — such as health care, retail, and construction— into other careers.

Zack Barricklow, executive director of NC Tech Paths, a regional nonprofit group, has placed 24 local residents into tech support and software engineering jobs where they earned an average of 70 percent more than they did in their previous job. Some of those jobs require two-year programs, others, shorter-term certificates and training.

The weekly Hillbilly Hoedown at the Alleghany Jubilee. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

Even though local jobs don’t always require it, people in Sparta don’t bristle at the four-year residential experience. In fact, they often see opportunity in it. Two-step over to the Hillbilly Hoedown at the Alleghany Jubilee on Tuesdays, and you’ll find a mix of former community college presidents, professors, and educators raving about the fiddler, an English teacher whose daughter just started her freshman year at the University of Chicago. 

Eat at Becca’s Backwoods Bean Coffee Shop in town, and you’re likely to run into the directors of the Alleghany Education Foundation on their lunch break. Since its founding in 1985, the foundation has raised millions of dollars for students, with many of the region’s older residents creating their own scholarships managed by the nonprofit as well.

The community prizes the scholarship fund so much that, when a loved one passes away, families will often ask for the creation of scholarship funds in lieu of flowers.

The foundation gave out $150,000 last year, making sure each of the county’s 57 graduates who were pursuing a postsecondary education received a scholarship. About 30 of those students went to four-year universities, but the scholarships cover a range of pathways, including community colleges and credential programs.

Despite having high-school graduation rates above the national average, rural students are the least likely to go to college right after high school, according to 2017 National Student Clearinghouse data. Just 59 percent of rural graduates went to college the subsequent fall, compared with 62 percent of urban and 67 percent of suburban graduates. 

Regardless of their political leanings, rural students also were more likely to drop out after their first year, meaning that, while they may still see the value in a four-year degree, pursuing one may pose a riskier proposition than community college or other paths.

“I always tell students to talk to your counselors, talk to your parents, talk to your preacher, get their input, and make your own decision,” says Charlie White, the former president of multiple community colleges in nearby southwest Virginia.

His oldest son went to a community college and studied instrumentation, “a high-class word for a maintenance man,”  White says. “Last year, with a two-year degree, he made $105,000 … I never had a damn professor who worked for me that made $105,000.”

John Kilmartin, owner of the Alleghany Inn, attended college only briefly. But he appreciates the ways it changed his daughter’s life for the better. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

The stark divides in voting patterns here can obscure the complexities of individual experiences and how they complicate simplistic views, not just about politics but about college, too.

John Kilmartin attended college only briefly, dropping out to follow a hotel chain’s management track in Raleigh. He moved to Sparta in 2004 to raise his family, gets his news from the BBC and Al Jazeera, and dreams of writing a book about the fascinating people he has met through his check-in window at the Alleghany Inn.

The inn manager was surprised when his daughter got into North Carolina State University. And it felt like a “gut punch” when he co-signed for what would eventually be $80,000 in student loans. He had watched some of the high school’s best students go to college only to drop out, and worried she would, too, and then saddle them with debt. 

Kilmartin, who considers himself fiscally, but not socially, conservative, also couldn’t help but notice how she changed while at the university. “That first semester, I joked that she had changed her last name from Kilmartin to Kardashian,” he says.

Still, he didn’t push her too hard. “As a parent, you have to let your kids find their own way,” Kilmartin says. His own views are far from settled: While he voted for Trump, he often supports Democrats down the ballot.

“Nobody here votes straight-ticket, that I know of,” Kilmartin says. “Everybody votes personally, because I know good Democrats and I know bad Republicans. I know bad Democrats and good Republicans.”

Despite his fears, his daughter graduated with a textiles degree and immediately got a high-paying job working for a tech company in Raleigh. Like thoughts on politics, views on education, can be messy — and rooted in the personal. While Kilmartin didn’t need a degree to get where he wanted, he appreciates the impact college had on his daughter. The university, he says, “changed her life.”


This story was co-published by USA Today.