ARLINGTON, Va. -- Lagging education levels, if not corrected, may limit rural area progress in the years ahead, says Rodney Brown, USDA's deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics. In 2000, only 16 percent of rural adults 25 and older had completed college — half the percentage of urban adults. "And since 1990, the rural-urban gap in college completion has widened," he said at the annual USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum here.

"Improved education is a key to the future of rural areas. Those regions with high rates of high school completion, such as the Great Plains and parts of the rural West, have been most attractive to employers, unlike those with the lowest rates, such as the rural South."

Persistently high levels of poverty and unemployment are also found in many of the areas with lower education levels, he says.

"Today's youth, regardless of where they ultimately live and work, will need an unprecedented level of education and technical skills to compete in the increasingly high-skill 'new economy.'"

In 2000, Brown notes, average earnings per job for rural workers were only 67 percent of those for urban workers. "The wage gap reflects a rural workforce with less education and training on average than urban workers. In the past, many rural areas attracted industries that required a reliable pool of low-wage workers. But today, a low-education labor force poses a challenge for many rural areas that are seeking greater economic development."

Many rural jobs historically held by workers with limited education are being lost with rapid improvements in production technology or changing consumer demand, Brown says.

"Employers are now more attracted to rural areas that offer concentrations of well-educated, skilled workers. Those areas with poor schools and good universities/community colleges may find it harder to compete in the new economy."

The Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind Act" is creating a "new era of increased school accountability," he says, but its policies, predicated on a model of the large urban/suburban school district and high-skill urban economies "may be less successful when translated to the relatively isolated, small-size, and less-skilled economies of rural areas."

Of particular concern, Brown says, are those rural areas with poorly funded public schools, very low educational attainment, and high levels of economic distress. "All are major obstacles to the educational progress of local youth and local development efforts."

Growth in high-paying jobs is needed to improve incomes and education in rural areas, he says.

But the traditional approach of offering companies tax breaks "may no longer be sufficient to attract and keep them." New approaches, such as efforts by local educational institutions to provide training and technical assistance to clusters of firms, "may offer more potential for success." At the same time, universities and community colleges can improve the education levels of the local labor force, thereby helping to attract firms that require a more-educated labor pool.

"Over the last decade, knowledge to create and harness new technologies has been recognized as a key driving force behind economic growth and rising living standards," Brown says.

"Regions with innovative economic activity generally experience favorable economic growth rates — in both urban and rural areas."

Although distance has been an inhibiting factor for innovation in the past, it becomes less important with each improvement in communication, he says.

"Information and communications technology, aided by financial and technical assistance, can help smaller communities to enjoy the same benefits that once belonged solely to cities. These include higher standards of health care and virtually unlimited educational opportunities."

e-mail: Hembree Brandon