russell county

Rich Mountain overlooking the Clinch River Valley in Russell County.

How much money would it take to entice someone to move to a rural locality?

Would $140,000 motivate someone to work as a nurse in Halifax County? Is $24,000 enough to attract a recent college graduate to teach high school science in Russell County?

In Southwest and Southside Virginia, where young people are leaving to find opportunity elsewhere, a state commission is trying to combat that trend by offering to pay off student loan debt for those willing to live and work in the region. The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission is overhauling its student loan repayment program with a new focus on luring people to one of the 40 localities in Southwest and Southside for hard-to-fill jobs.

“If you want to come work in our region, we’ll help pay for your education,” said Evan Feinman, the executive director of the commission.

The commission is revising the program after looking at other programs throughout the country aimed at helping young people pay off their student loans. While not identical, these programs in other states recognize the problem of ballooning college debt for people who are in turn moving to urban areas to find higher-paying jobs.

Program in transition

The tobacco commission was created two decades ago to spend Virginia’s portion of the national tobacco settlement, and it’s since doled out more than $1 billion on a wide range of projects designed to benefit economically depressed areas of the state.

Among its earliest programs was awarding scholarships of about $2,000 to college-bound graduating high school students. The commission gave that money away with no measured outcomes.

The commission later changed the model to instead offer $2,000 loans to students in the tobacco region. If the recipients graduated from college and returned to the area, the commission forgave the loans. During its last award cycle, about 1,500 people received those loans. But only about half were returning to the region after graduation.

“It was not enough money to change behavior,” said Stephanie Kim, finance director of the tobacco commission. “It’s not like if somebody wasn’t coming back already that they would come back for this.”

Now the commission is significantly boosting the financial incentive and including measures to better address the region’s problems .

The population in Southwest and Southside has continued to decline. The birth rate in those regions has dropped also. State and local officials say young people are leaving and not coming back. There’s a shortage of people to fill certain jobs like doctors and nurses, science and math teachers, and industrial and electrical engineers.

The revised student loan repayment program has two parts, and the commission would spend $5 million on it every two years.

The commission’s Talent Attraction Program will cut a check for $24,000 over two years to recent college graduates willing to live in the tobacco region and work certain in-demand jobs. Participants will have to become civically engaged, as well, such as with Habitat for Humanity, the parent-teacher association or a local government board.

For the health care jobs, the commission is partnering with the Virginia Department of Health, which already runs a program awarding people up to $140,000 over four years to work in underserved areas. The department’s program is supported by state and federal funds as well as a match from health care employers. This year, the health department reviewed 72 eligible applicants from around the country, but only had enough funding for 24 of them. The tobacco commission would come in at that point and fund additional positions in its region.

“It’ll go directly to improving health equity for those in the tobacco region,” said Olivette Burroughs, health workforce specialist with the health department’s office of health equity.

While the programs will be open to applicants across Virginia and the country , the commission — made up of lawmakers and appointed community representatives — will give preference to those who can demonstrate they were raised in the region and returning after completing their education.

The hope is that after a few years participants will become established in the area and therefore they will be more likely to stay in the region for many more years.

“We want folks to come in and spend two years working, but we also want them to stay 10 years, stay a lifetime in those underserved areas,” Burroughs said.

The commission will meet Thursday in Danville to vote on the program. If approved, the commission will begin receiving applications this summer.

Rural issue

Other states have been coming up with ways to persuade young people to move to rural America by lightening their student debt load.

For instance, Maine has been trying to counter its aging work force by offering a tax credit, allowing college graduates who work in the state to deduct student loan payments from their state income tax.

Kansas offers a tax exemption as well as a loan repayment program that’s a model for the tobacco commission . It’s called the Rural Opportunity Zone program, launched in 2011 as a tool to counter declining population in rural areas.

The program wants to attract new people to 77 participating localities. So if someone graduates high school, goes to college and then returns to their rural hometown upon graduation, they are not eligible.

The program offers $15,000 over five years. The state funds half, and the localities or employers will cover the rest.

The program has produced encouraging results so far, said Rachéll Rowand, the program manager. A report on the state of the program is before the governor and will be published for public review soon.

In addition to looking at the return on investment for every dollar the program spends, Rowand said it was valuable to examine the effects on quality of life. The program conducted a recent survey on participants and found that doctors and teachers moved to the area that otherwise might not have.

“There are people that moved to those communities that were holding off having kids, they were holding off getting married, and just something as little as an extra $3,000 a year that goes toward your student loans helped them with maintaining monthly bills in those areas,” Rowand said.

Rowand said one of the program’s biggest obstacles is community buy-in. While some communities may not have the funds to support it, others don’t want to participate.

“Some of them think the program isn’t helping people that already live there, so they don’t want to help other people come in,” Rowand said.

Program mission

Members of the education committee of the tobacco commission heard details about the revamped program last week at a meeting in Roanoke, and they were hesitant about giving commission money to people who weren’t raised in what they refer to as the “tobacco footprint.”

Some debate focused on if the commission wants to attract new people to the region or merely encourage people from the area to stay.

“The concept is what I don’t like,” Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg, said at the meeting. “I’d rather we take the money we’ve got and spend it in the footprint on people that are already here, try to lift them up. I think that’s the goal of the tobacco commission. I think what we’re getting into now is bringing people in from other parts of the state and that’s more or less giving up.”

Feinman reasoned that the commission awards money to businesses coming in from out of the region, and that same logic could be applied to loan repayment recipients from outside the footprint. The region as a whole benefits, Feinman said.

“If we need to bring in somebody from the outside, the moment they put down roots and get civically engaged and they take a job and secure housing in the footprint, they are from the footprint,” Feinman said. “They’ve joined us in the same way that factory owner has.”

Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, worried about people coming to work as doctors in the region and taking advantage of the commission funds, and then leaving after a couple years to take a higher-paying job in an urban area. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, was skeptical that $140,000 would attract someone with large debt to work as a pediatrician in a rural area where the pay is lower.

“We continue to see that many of us live in counties where health care outcomes are the poorest in the entire state,” said Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, who backed the program. “And I don’t know how we can sit here and not want to use our assets to help deliver a better outcome to those areas.”

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