The service area of UWA is known as the Black Belt Region, a nationally identified geographic region spanning seven states from West Virginia to Alabama. 23 percent of UWA students come from the communities where educational deprivation and an unskilled labor force have created an economically stagnant area. This depressed area, made up of eleven counties of Alabama, is part of the larger Black Belt Region of the Southeastern United States and includes the poorest counties in Alabama. Originally, the name referred to the thin layer of exceptionally fertile black soil which encouraged cotton farming during the pioneer period of Alabama history. Now the descriptive title is mistaken as a reference to the exceptionally high proportion of Black American residents in these counties.
The counties in Alabama’s Black Belt are rural and underdeveloped with few employment opportunities due to a lack of a diversified economy, a lack of qualified workforce, and a lack of infrastructure. Such dormancy stems from several factors. The environment in west Alabama is overburdened by extremes: dangerous levels of poverty, poor test scores, low levels of academic achievement, high percentages of teachers teaching out of field, high dropout rates, low standards of living, high unemployment rates, and low levels of funding. In fact, 26% of the citizens in Black Belt counties live at or below poverty level. Learned helplessness prevails and has created low self-esteem and a paucity of pride. Schools in the area are burdened by many of the same issues that plague urban areas, where the majority of the students live in poverty-ridden conditions.