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These North Carolina counties were politically aligned. Education has divided them.

The weekly Hillbilly Hoedown in Alleghany County, N.C. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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The view from North Carolina’s High Country

Twenty years ago, the politics of Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University, were aligned with its rural North Carolina neighbors. Back in 2000, George W. Bush won there by a 13-point margin, as Watauga joined surrounding counties in picking the Republican for president. 

By 2020, though, their politics had diverged. 53 percent of Watauga voters backed Joe Biden. The counties next door became even more Republican. Alleghany, for example, moved nearly 16 points further in that direction, with nearly three-quarters of voters choosing Donald Trump.

One of the biggest dividing lines? Education.

More than 40 percent of Watauga residents hold a bachelor’s degree, well above North Carolina’s average of 32 percent. In Alleghany, about 20 percent do. 

In county after county across the United States, places like Watauga, where high percentages of residents have a four-year degree, have almost uniformly moved toward Democrats in presidential voting since 2000. And most counties where below-average proportions of adults have bachelor’s degrees have moved toward Republicans. (See our visualization of this trend here.)

In other words, in just a single generation, the college degree has become a major political fault line in presidential politics.

Nick Fouriezos, our rural reporter, went to North Carolina’s High Country — a seven-county region in the western part of the state — to talk with people about politics, education, and what’s changed. His story from there was co-published today by USA Today.

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

One of the people Nick talked with was John Kilmartin, the manager of the Alleghany Inn, who attended college only briefly. He dropped out to follow a hotel chain’s management track in Raleigh.

Kilmartin, Nick writes, moved to Sparta, N.C., 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 inn. He voted for Trump, although he says he often supports Democrats down the ballot.

When his daughter got into North Carolina State, he was worried, especially 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. Despite his fears, his daughter graduated with a textiles degree and immediately got a job working for a tech company in Raleigh.

Like thoughts on politics, views on education, can be messy, Nick says: While Kilmartin didn’t need a degree to get where he wanted, he appreciates the impact college had on his daughter. The university, the inn manager says, “changed her life.”

—Sara Hebel

+ Read about Nick’s stop at the Hillbilly Hoedown during his trip and sign up for his newsletter, Mile Markers.

++ Read more about the college degree as political fault line, from our 2020 reporting: A Tale of Two Jefferson Counties.

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

U. of Florida students protest Sen. Ben Sasse while he answers questions by the university’s board of trustees. Photo: Ivy Ceballo for the Tampa Bay Times

From Florida: Before Ben Sasse was voted in this week as president of the University of Florida, the Republican senator faced scathing public comment. Speakers raised concerns about political influence on the university and his track record on LGBTQ issues. Divya Kumar on the debate.

From Colorado: In Colorado, Hispanic women and men go to college at lower rates than many of their peers, Jason Gonzales reports. Here’s what students said about how educators can help them realize their college dreams.

From The Job: The sustained slide of U.S. college enrollments has added urgency, Paul Fain says, to efforts to re-enroll students who left college before earning a credential. 

From College Inside: Bill Keller, founding editor of the Marshall Project, talks with Charlotte West about his new book, “What’s Prison For?” Plus, the latest on Pell Grants and loan forgiveness.

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