Mexico figures prominently in our immigration debates, but not in the way we’re about to mention. Hold that thought, while we set the stage.

A few weeks ago, the dean of the business school at Dartmouth College wrote an intriguing commentary piece in The Wall Street Journal, not exactly a bastion of liberal thinking: Matthew Slaughter said the United States needs more immigrants, not fewer.

More specifically, he made the case that the U.S. needs more skilled immigrants. This is not an unusual argument, just one that gets elbowed out of the way by all the focus on the southern border. A wall isn’t going to fix the fundamental problem there, because the fundamental problem is that we have three failed states within walking distance — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Perhaps we ought to spend more of our energies figuring out what went wrong in those three countries? We don’t see migrant caravans from Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.

In any case, Slaughter’s point wasn’t just that we need more high-skilled immigrants, but we need them more dispersed around the country. Half the applications of H-1B visas — the paperwork that admits skilled immigrants — are from companies in just nine metropolitan areas. That matches another trend: The increasing concentration of economic growth in a relative handful of high-tech capitals. Slaughter says the country would be better off if (a) we had more high-skilled immigrants and (b) more of them were in America’s “heartland.”

He cites Ohio as an example: Immigrants account for only 4.2% of the state’s population but 11.8% of its workers in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields. Immigrants are disproportionately driving that state’s economic transition. “From 2000-15 the number of immigrant entrepreneurs in Ohio increased by 120,000, while the rate at which native-born Americans opened businesses went down,” Slaughter writes. “Imagine how much more dynamic Ohio could be,” he writes, if it had more high-skilled immigrants.

Actually, Ohio — and lots of other places — would be more dynamic economically if it had more high-skilled workers, period. Slaughter looks to high-skilled immigrants mainly because it’s quicker and easier to attract them than it is to raise the skill level of the existing workforce — and that’s where we come to the nub of the question we want to address today.

Here’s one of the central problems facing rural America: The economy is changing in ways that work against it. More to the point, the transition from the industrial age to the information age gives an advantage to places with lots of college graduates, and that’s not rural America. Slaughter notes that 80% of the counties in the U.S. saw their population of working-age adults decline as people migrate to places that have jobs for them. “The decline is even starker in talent,” he writes. “In the fastest-shrinking 10% of counties, the share of the adult population with at least a college degree is only 15.8%. This level of educational attainment is only half of what it is in America’s fastest-growth counties. It is equivalent to where America overall was in 1978, or where Mexico is today.”

Whoa. Read that paragraph again. In terms of a workforce, parts of rural America are “where Mexico is today.” That’s a statistic that every county board of supervisors ought to have emblazoned on the agenda for every meeting it has. If parts of rural America are “where Mexico is today” in terms of a workforce, then what advantage do they have in the global marketplace? Hint: Not much of one. That statistic sent us in search of others. We found them, and they aren’t happy ones. Actually, Slaughter’s piece is rather kind. The latest statistics actually show that 17.4% of working-age Mexicans have a college degree. That’s more than all but three localities west of the New River — Bristol and Washington County are 23% and Wythe County is 18%. It’s also more than almost most of the localities in Southside Virginia. The average in both is 15.5%.

Let’s not mince words here: Most of Southwest and Southside Virginia is less educated than Mexico. Is that really where we want to be? This is why former Gov. Gerald Baliles last year went before the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia and called for a “Marshall Plan” to raise educational levels in rural Virginia. Why hasn’t there been a more urgent conversation about that?

Let’s not mince statistics, either: We said that most of rural Virginia has a workforce less educated than Mexico. In some communities, the educational attainment is less than half that of Mexico. In Dickenson County, 9.3% of adults have a college degree. In Greensville County, only 7.5 % do. That puts them on the same level that Indonesia was in 2011 (the most recent statistics available) and South Africa in 2012. In some ways, rural America qualifies as a “developing country,” the more politically-correct term for what used to be called Third World countries.

It seems painfully clear: If the United States is going to stay competitive in the global marketplace, we need to get more students into post-secondary education of some sort.

And that means we need to focus harder on rural areas, because, statistically speaking, they’re the ones dragging us down. (We chose our words there carefully. We need more students in college, for sure. But not everyone needs to go to college. There’s actually a growing demand in certain skilled trades, so the best way to say things is that we need more people seeking post-high school education of some sort, but they don’t all need a four-year degree. For our purposes here today, though, we’re just dealing with college degrees).

Virginia, to its credit, is taking some action. The state is energetically pushing more credentials programs through community colleges. And most community colleges in western Virginia now have scholarship programs, often funded partly by local governments. That means one of the most conservative parts of the state is trying to create what amounts to a “free college” program because the economy now demands it. The tobacco commission last week approved a program to pay off student loans for graduates in certain fields who agree to live in Southwest or Southside Virginia, which is a good start. But when you look at these statistics, it’s also clear that whatever we’re doing, we’re probably not doing enough. Make America great again? First we need to get parts of rural America up to the level of Mexico.

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