Carrie DuPre, PhD, is executive director of College Hub in Spartanburg, SC. College Hub believes that philanthropy and community involvement are key elements to strengthening our culture’s view of education. Read more about education in Spartanburg on Dr. DuPre’s blog: www.goupstate.com/collegehub.
Philanthropy is about looking at the big picture, helping others, and serving your neighbors to strengthen your community. It includes identifying the needs of your community and connecting people and resources to fill them.
Helping the homeless? Yes, that is a need we will help. Providing medical care to those who need it? Of course—another clear-cut need. Protecting the safety of young children? A no-brainer.
But what if your community does not realize the need it faces?
In Spartanburg, South Carolina, less than 20 percent of our adult population holds a baccalaureate degree, below the national average of 27 percent. We as educators and non-profit leaders see this as a need in our community, knowing that more education leads to steadier employment, higher earnings, and better health. It leads to an improved community with less crime, greater productivity (including tax revenues and job creation), and higher civic engagement.
So, seeing this need—the lack of higher education in our county— educators and non-profit leaders called for the formation of a nonprofit to focus solely on getting the community involved in education and helping our citizens prepare for and gain access to college. College Hub an example of a local organization addressing this local need .
It sounds uncomplicated in nature: show the community the staggeringly low college graduation rates in our county and how it negatively affects our community, and people will be eager to help. However, what we found was that this uncomplicated task was more complicated than we thought.
What we discovered was that not everyone shared our view that this lack of higher education was a problem.
Our county has long been associated with a mill society. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nearly 40 mills were built and our economy was dominated by the textile industry. Spartanburg County’s location helped it become the railroad “hub city” as it created easy access to interstate transportation of goods and people. Mill villages cropped up, with mill workers living, working, and worshiping—oh, and playing textile-league baseball—all in the land surrounding their place of work.
A person could make a nice living working in the mills for many years, never needing a degree. The textile life was by no means easy or perfect, but it was the way of life in our county. Then rising wages, lowered costs for cotton, and greater automobile ownership began to shift life as our citizens knew it.
What happens to a culture when a drastic shift like this occurs? When one way of life dissipates, another must evolve to take its place. That evolution, however, involves a major paradigm shift in the culture, forcing people to throw out their old way of thinking for a newer model (like one that encourages education and employs white collar workers). A cultural shift large will not happen overnight. It will not happen in a few years, or ten years, or twenty years. It will take a generation. It will take until high school students no longer have memories of parents and grandparents creating good lives from the extinct mills. It will take parents no longer thinking that their level of education (or lack of education) is “good enough” for their children. It will take until the entire community embraces the new way of life that requires higher education for economic stability and works together to support its youth and unemployed adults to go to college.
Education impacts and intertwines with so many other issues and needs in our community that changing the way it is viewed naturally requires a cultural shift. For example, poverty and education are connected; Spartanburg County has higher unemployment and lower per capita income than state and national averages, and we have school districts with over half their students on free and reduced lunch. Looking at education includes looking at poverty.
We also had 573 teens give birth in our county in 2009. Teen pregnancies cost us more than $16 million a year in health care, public assistance, and lost wages—costs that affect us as tax payers. Teen moms are also statistically less likely to graduate from high school, effectively limiting their education and employment opportunities. Looking at education includes looking at teen pregnancy.
Local researchers determined that education was the number one indicator of our health. Compared to state and national averages, Spartanburg County children have lower rates of full immunization against preventable diseases, residents have lower levels of medical insurance, access to mental health care is strained, and childhood obesity has tripled since 1980. Looking at education includes looking at public health.
Ultimately, our task will be changing the behaviors in county residents so that a greater number will work toward and obtain higher education. But first, before we can inspire people to engage in educational philanthropy and give of their time and resources to the issue of education, we must show them that there is a need. In our case, philanthropy begins with changing long-standing cultural perceptions, one conversation at a time.