From The Register-Herald of Beckley: 

The “college-going rate” is one of the key measures of educational improvement for West Virginia, and there is good news.

After dipping for a couple of years, the percentage of Mountain State high school graduates who enrolled in community colleges and four-year colleges increased last year. The statewide percentage is still low in comparison with other states — 55.6 percent — but at least it is heading in the right direction.

The high-water mark for West Virginia was 2009, when 62 percent of high school grads enrolled in college, but the lean years of the recession and higher tuition costs likely took their toll. The average steadily declined over the next few years, hitting 55.4 percent for the fall of 2015.

That meant almost 45 percent of the state’s graduates faced the difficult challenge of finding a living wage job with only a high-school degree. Combine that with the 20 percent of the class that dropped out before graduation, and you have almost two-thirds of the state’s young workforce lacking the skills most good jobs require today.

The situation is even more severe in many counties of southern West Virginia, where the college-going rates are even lower, according to a recent report by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and West Virginia Community and Technical College System.

Counties in the northern part of the state have the best college-going rates, led by Ohio County at 71.5 percent, Mineral County at 66.3 percent and Monongalia at 66 percent. Cabell, Wayne and Logan moved up to close to 60 percent for 2016, and Putnam was at 63 percent. But other area counties were in the 50 percent range with several in the 40-45 percent range.

No wonder, our region has so many young people who are neither working nor in school — 18 to 25 percent in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, according to a recent Measure of America study.

In his last two years, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin put a particular focus on urging high school students to pick a post-secondary education path, and Gov. Jim Justice, in his first few months, also has made education a central part of his agenda. The Higher Education Policy Commission also launched its innovative GEAR UP program to help high-schoolers see the importance of college. We hope those efforts will continue.

“These gains, while subtle, represent a solid step in the right direction,” said Dr. Paul Hill, HEPC chancellor. “Now that the economy is beginning to stabilize, we’re more confident that the small strides we’re witnessing represent genuine progress in creating a college-going culture in West Virginia – a process that takes time and occurs student by student, community by community.”

Building that “college-going culture” is critical for the Mountain State — whether the coal industry rebounds or not — and leaders, educators and families need to keep the momentum going.