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Rural Spotlight: Strengthening Economic Opportunity North of Raleigh-Durham

Regional Matters
July 29, 2021

Rural Spotlights

This post is part of our new Rural Spotlight series, where we explore solutions to the economic challenges faced by rural communities in the Fifth District.


The North Carolina counties of Franklin, Granville, Vance, and Warren are located near the Virginia border and northeast of Wake and Durham counties — home to the rapidly growing cities of Raleigh and Durham. Three of the four counties are classified as rural based on our definition. The state of North Carolina uses a tier system to designate the economic well-being of each of its 100 counties. The most economically distressed counties are designated as Tier 1, the middle counties as Tier 2, and the least distressed as Tier 3. According to the 2021 designations, Wake and Durham counties are Tier 3: the third and seventh least distressed counties in the state, respectively. Meanwhile, Franklin and Granville counties are Tier 2, and Vance and Warren counties are Tier 1. Although their proximity to the Raleigh-Durham area and Kerr Lake has provided these four counties with some economic opportunities, as their tier designation represents, they remain economically challenged compared to their more urban neighbors.

Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC), established in 1969, is one of 58 community colleges across the state and serves around 9,500 students annually. VGCC serves all four counties; the main campus is in Vance County, but three satellite campuses in Franklin, Granville, and Warren counties help VGCC serve an area the size of Rhode Island. Moreover, VGCC is critical to the economy and labor force of the area and will play a role in the counties’ development as Raleigh and Durham continue to grow.

A Long History of Economic Hardship

North Carolina State Map circa 1800
North Carolina State Map circa 1900

The history of Vance County, home to VGCC, is fraught with political and economic tension. Formed in 1881, many speculate that its primary purpose was to gerrymander the black voters from Franklin, Granville, and Warren counties into a new majority-minority county. A comparison of the maps above show how Vance County was carved from its neighbors. Vance County faced economic challenges from the start, given that a majority of its residents were newly freed slaves. The 1910 census shows clear disparities between blacks and whites in Vance County: Of residents ages 10 or older, 8.2 percent of whites were illiterate, compared with 29.8 percent of blacks. Additionally, 72.4 percent of white children attended school, compared with only 61.3 percent of black children.

As a rural county, Vance County had little opportunity to recover from the disparities faced 140 years ago. Its rural neighbor, Warren County, also lost population between 2010 and 2020 while the state grew 10.7 percent. Both counties have median household income levels well below the state average. On the other hand, Franklin and Granville, more urban counties, perform around the state average. In addition, Vance and Warren counties have some of the highest poverty rates in the state. (See Appendix.)

The Role of Vance-Granville Community College

Community colleges play a critical role in educating students and connecting them to jobs. This is especially true in rural and economically distressed areas where students may not have local access to a traditional four-year college or university. In rural areas across the Fifth District, community colleges are anchor institutions, providing educational opportunities while serving as important hubs of employment, cultural programming, and professional opportunities.

In rural places like Vance County, the community college is often a leader in local innovation and economic development. They must also lead efforts to retrain workers who lose their jobs or want a new career path. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, VGCC has provided drive-up internet access at all four campuses so that people can engage in online schooling or jobs. They also created boot camps called “Get a Job/Keep a Job” to help area residents reenter the workforce after a period of unemployment. The boot camps are not only free for eligible students, but also include transportation as needed.

As a community college, VGCC is a relative success story. Although VGCC experienced some enrollment declines during COVID-19, the decline was smaller than the national community college enrollment decline of around 10 percent in 2020. They attribute their relative strength to their ability to pivot quickly during the pandemic, as well as their investment in some key areas to bolster enrollment. During the pandemic, VGCC has leaned on some of their more popular programs, such as their early colleges for high school students and their workforce programs to support local employers and the community. They also rely heavily on partnerships in the four counties they serve.  Jerry Edmonds, vice president of workforce and community engagement at VGCC, says that community partnerships are a major driver of their success. “The business community, chambers of commerce, economic development offices, and other community leaders are all focused on growth and moving the communities forward. When good ideas come along, they all work together to get to ‘yes,’” says Edmonds.

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VGCC Early Colleges

North Carolina has a highly established early college system — one that enables high school students to work toward an associate’s degree alongside their high school diploma. North Carolina has 132 early college high schools across the state, 116 of which are associated with community colleges. After a student graduates from the early college high school, they typically only need two additional years to earn their bachelor’s degree. VGCC has four early colleges, one in each of the counties they serve. VGCC’s choice to have four separate schools allows students easier access to the schools.

The early college program in North Carolina is unique in its scope and the number of students it serves statewide. Research has shown that the state’s early college students are significantly more likely to enroll in a four-year institution and graduate with a bachelor’s degree within eight years after ninth grade, compared to those who were interested in early college but were not awarded a spot via the lottery enrollment system.

VGCC Job Training and Continuing Education Programs

In addition to partnering with early college high schools, community colleges serve students in traditional, for-credit curriculum programs and in shorter-term, noncredit job training programs. VGCC has more than 40 credit programs that range from business to nursing to welding. The average age of their for-credit curriculum students is 19 years old, which includes students enrolled in the early college high schools.

VGCC’s noncredit programs are typically centered around traditional vocational training. The average age of the noncredit student is 36 years old, and many of the students are training for critical community roles like basic law enforcement, fire/rescue, and occupational health care, including certified nursing assistants, paramedics, and phlebotomists. Other VGCC noncredit options include college and career readiness programs such as adult basic education and English as a second language. Interestingly, while 65 percent of the for-credit students are female, 65 percent of the noncredit students are male.

VGCC used some of the federal funds provided during the pandemic to expand their noncredit offerings. They began a nine-week Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) program in 2020, with federal and state funds allowing them to offer this program tuition-free for students who cannot afford the $1,876 course fee. The CDL program at VGCC was created at a time when demand for truck drivers was high and wages were increasing. While CDL graduates clearly benefit from higher wages, as the local supply of truck drivers increases, there may also be an economic development benefit for the counties VGCC serves. Since the program began last year, they have had a steady flow of interested students.


The rural counties northeast of Raleigh-Durham have a history of economic hardship, but despite that, there are reasons to be optimistic about their future. VGCC remains an important economic driver for the rural areas north of Raleigh-Durham. Early college high schools that partner with VGCC give high schoolers a head start on higher education and improve graduation rates. During the pandemic, VGCC bolstered funding for noncredit programs in fields with worker shortages and hosted free employment boot camps for unemployed workers. The versatility of VGCC helped strengthen its enrollment during the pandemic and helped workers throughout the region upskill to find new jobs. VGCC has played, and continues to play a critical role in improving employment and economic opportunities in the area, especially as Raleigh-Durham expands and provides more opportunities for growth in the Raleigh-Durham exurbs.


The following section includes demographic and economic data for VGCC’s service area, which covers the North Carolina counties of Franklin, Granville, Vance, and Warren.

Demographic and Education Statistics

GeographyTotal Population% of Population Age 25-64% Population (25-64) with High School Diploma or Higher% Population (25-64) with Bachelor’s Degree or Higher
Franklin County71,85952.7%87.6%23.8%
Granville County60,48653.6%86.7%24.3%
Vance County44,71848.6%81.3%15.2%
Warren County19,52248.7%82.8%15.1%
North Carolina10,600,82351.7%89.1%32.9%
Fifth District32,962,83152.2%90.2%36.1%

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau Vintage 2020 County Population Totals, American Community Survey 2019 5-Year Estimates; author’s calculations.

Note: Raleigh-Durham in the table refers to combined Wake and Durham counties, not the broader Raleigh and Durham metro areas.

Employment Statistics​

GeographyEmployment/Population Ratio (25-64)Labor Force Participation Rate (25-64)Unemployment Rate, December 2019Unemployment Rate, December 2020
Franklin County72.0%75.2%3.3%6.1%
Granville County71.3%74.9%2.8%5.0%
Vance County68.4%72.7%4.9%9.4%
Warren County61.0%65.1%5.1%9.1%
North Carolina72.8%77.1%3.2%6.1%
Fifth District74.0%78.3%2.9%6.2%

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2019 5-Year Estimates; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Local Area Unemployment Statistics; author’s calculations.

Note: Raleigh-Durham in the table refers to combined Wake and Durham counties, not the broader Raleigh and Durham metro areas. December unemployment rates are not seasonally adjusted.

Note: Due to a small sample size, the point estimate for median earnings for those with a graduate or professional degree living in Warren County is unreliable and has been excluded from the figure.

Note: Due to data suppression, percentages may not add up to 100 percent.