Geography, Jobs and Education- The Politics of Division: Role for Higher Education

Brian Herman, Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Minnesota,

President/CEO Herman, Neuhauser Research Management Consultants, Inc.


Our country is increasingly divided along political, economic, geographic, racial and educational status. Much has been written about the causes of this reality. An economic transformation has shifted the engine of value creation from a territorially spread-out system of labor-intensive industrial production to more agglomerated activity of knowledge-based and high-tech services1. Roughly 20 percent of prime-age American men are not working full time2. The creation of racially and culturally diverse city-states, where greater than half the US population live in metropolitan areas with more than a million people and more than 70 percent in areas with more than 500,000 residents3. Residents of these city-states have higher levels of higher educational attainment than the rest of the country, and accounted for 72 percent of the nation’s employment growth since the financial crisis4.


Today, roughly 20% of our students fail to graduate high school in four years; 20% take no further schooling after high school; 20% drop out of college; 20% get a job that doesn’t require the degree they just earned; and only 20% translate their education to a career2. Add to this mix the increasingly common “gig” economy jobs that do not provide a steady salary, benefits, or security and that the average poverty level is worse in this century than the last2, and we have created a situation where jobs of the future are increasingly congregated into smaller and smaller geographic regions and individuals who do not live in these areas struggle for economic survival.


This shift in the geography of our economy has significant political implications. Rural America is less diverse than city-states, have a higher proportion of non-college education people, (especially non-college whites3), and significant resentment of the perceived elitism of the city-states. The 2016 and 2018 elections bore this out. In 2016, Donald Trump won the Presidency largely on the basis of support from Rural America, while in 2018 the Democrats retook the house through increased participation of city-state and suburbs comprised of individuals with more advanced education. An argument has been made that a smaller and smaller percentage of the population is controlling the political agenda of the US because each state has two senators, regardless of population3. Perhaps one solution is to allow each state to have one senator, with the remaining senators coming from city-states based upon population.

To address this current situation will take a multi-pronged approach, but we must somehow deliver the ability of rural communities to gain the necessary skills to compete in the current knowledge based economy and provide a quality of life millennials find attractive. Rural areas can be physically very far form city-states as well as lack digital connecting infrastructure1. Appropriate-training programs in high level digital skills is lacking in these communities. Community colleges and universities via online learning could easily provide training programs if the broadband capabilities to these communities were enhanced. For higher education to successfully provide these skill sets, their approaches also need to change. This includes more engagement of corporations in academic programming, more and longer student internships, worker co-ops, focusing university capabilities on local and regional needs and issues and exporting brain-power, intellectual capacity and the ability to start new companies in rural environments but in ways that do not require significant physical infrastructure.


Our country is almost evenly split in terms of political philosophy and winning elections today is about changing the mind of a very small part of the electorate. Much like those who possess a significant portion of the wealth in our country, the college-educated have also built a culture, an economy and a political system that is focused on their needs2. We have ignored the needs and concerns of our fellow citizens in rural communities and have now created animosity, fear and uncertainty about their future and they are using the political system to make their views known. Higher education has an opportunity to help solve some of the issues that have led to our current situation, but must itself examine its missions, philosophies and business processes to provide equal access to education for all.


  1. Sandbu. M. (2018)
  2. Brooks, D. (2018)
  3. Krugman, P. (2018)
  4. Hendrikson, C., Mujro, M and Galston, W.A. (2018)
  5. Cass, O. (2108).

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