News: College Access & Success

Rural Student Success Resources: Facts and Figures

Monday, June 17, 2019  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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That the majority of NCAN members are based in urban and suburban areas is hardly groundbreaking news, but rural areas are hardly devoid of college access and success challenges. Over the past two years, NCAN’s involvement in the Rural Student Success Initiative (along with NCAN member College Forward and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service) has offered us the opportunity to work in the rural context with engaged stakeholders about how to improve postsecondary advising and outcomes. This work comes at a time when there is an increasing focus on strategies that can help rural communities and students.

This blog post is the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series that highlights research and resources for rural college access and success. As NCAN continues to grow its network and partnerships with others engaged in this work, readers can expect to see us share more insights. Ideally there will be something for all readers in these posts, both those unfamiliar with working in the rural context, those deeply experienced, and everyone in between. Have questions, comments, or resources to share? I welcome them all.

Let’s get started.

A fine place to begin is with "No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America." Edited by scholars Michael Q. McShane and Andy Smarick, the anthology contains eight essays like “A Statistical Portrait of Rural Education in America” (via Nat Malkus) and “The Power of Place: Rural Identity and the Politics of Rural School Reform” (via Sara Dahill-Brown and Ashley Jochim), but it also covers other key topics like the importance of the federal safety net, school finance, and school staffing.

The introduction makes two guiding assertions about working in rural education. First: “the term ‘rural’ evokes different imagery for different people;” indeed, rural contexts across the country vary widely, and putting all of these communities under one heading is unwise, incorrect, and problematic. Second, “any serious study of rural education must move beyond a deficit mind-set and focus on building on the strengths of rural communities and the citizens who inhabit them.”

Malkus, in his aforementioned essay, appropriately begins by trying to define what “rural” means. The simplest way is perhaps what it isn’t: rural communities aren’t urban or suburban. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition, which identifies “Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people,” “Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people,” and goes on to say that “’rural’ encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.” In 2010, just under 20% of the U.S. population resided in rural areas. Within rural areas, there are “fringe,” “distant,” and “remote” areas, according to how far they are from a UA or a UC.

Here are a few more statistics and insights from Malkus’ essay, which put rural communities into context:

  • Socioeconomic status: “Less than one-third of rural students in the Northeast receive free lunch, compared to more than half of rural students in the South. Across each of these socioeconomic measures it is clear that rural schools and districts are advantaged relative to their town, especially their urban counterparts. Again, despite that relative advantage, rural schools are far from uniform socioeconomically, with the West, and particularly, the South, faring worse than the Midwest and Northeast.”

  • Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners (ELLs):The proportion of students with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “did not vary across locales.” Rural schools did, however, report 4% ELL students whereas across the nation that figure is 10%. That rural ELL percentage varied widely across region, however; rural schools in the West report 17% ELL students, while the Northeast and Midwest both have 6%, and the South has 9%.

  • Rural Family Involvement: “Rural families seem more involved at school and church than families in other locales, despite the longer average travel times involved in rural areas.”

  • School Size and Offerings: In 2014-15, rural elementary and secondary schools educated 18% of students in the U.S., but rural communities contain 28% of all schools. Malkus notes, “On average, rural schools serve 344 students, which is smaller compared to those in towns, suburbs, or cities (432, 647, and 581 students, respectively.” Rural schools have fewer specialized staff and services relative to schools in other locales. This shows up in a few places, but notably in course-taking where credits in advanced courses, Advanced Placement, and foreign-language are fewer among rural students than their counterparts elsewhere.

  • Rural Student Achievement: “For both reading and math scores across fourth, eighth, and 12th grades, rural students scored above urban students but below suburban students across the board.” Malkus notes, “These difference were relatively small.”

  • Rural Student Achievement Gaps: Using data from the Nation’s Report Card, Malkus finds that in rural schools, the Black-White achievement gap is about two-thirds that found in urban schools, and the Hispanic-White gap is about half that of urban schools. A similar phenomenon exists according to poverty level; town and rural schools had smaller achievement gaps based on family income relative to urban and suburban schools.

  • Rural Graduation Rates: “While suburban students and schools tend to edge out their rural counterparts in terms of academic scores, rural graduates have the highest overall graduation rates of all locales. … Rural graduation rates showed less variation across regions than other characteristics in this chapter.”

The above are all important for gaining a better understanding of rural communities across the country (understanding that regions can vary widely within characteristics). NCAN members, however, will be particularly interested in Malkus’ section titled “Rural Opportunities after School.” This section begins, “While graduation rates in rural schools are relatively encouraging, college-going rates for these graduates are less so.” According to 2013 data from the High School Longitudinal Study, 76% of urban and 79% of suburban students went to “some form of college,” compared to 71% of rural students. Again, this varied by region with Western and Southern rural students matriculating less frequently than rural students from the Midwest and Northeast.

Overall, rural students were less likely to go to four-year institutions; 32% of students nationally were seeking a bachelor’s degree a year after high school graduation but just 29% of rural students were, and just 18% of rural students from the West did so.

Parental expectations may contribute to this phenomenon. Using data from the Parent and Family Involvement Survey, Malkus identifies that “higher percentages of rural parents expected their students would graduate only from high school or attend a vocational or technical school.”

I quote the next, long passage in full because it provides some important insight into how critical college access and success work can be for students and families in rural communities and, indeed, these communities themselves. The passage double underlines the importance of efforts like the Rural Student Success Initiative and others that this blog series will touch on:

These may seem like small differences in college-going and the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees. However, these differences are all the more important for rural students because the prospects for those students without further education are direr in rural areas. According to American Community Survey data, the share of adults aged eighteen to twenty-four who are idle – that is, neither in work nor attending school – is higher in rural areas than in other locales, and this rural idleness is getting worse over time.

Between 2006 and 2016, about 10.5 percent of all American eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds were idle. The percentage of idle adults in urban areas was roughly the same in both years, at about 20 percent. In contrast, 12 percent of rural eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds were idle in 2006, which grew to 15 percent ten years later. In both years, female eighteen-to twenty-four-year-olds had high rates of idleness than males, and this was decidedly more pronounced in rural areas.

The growth in idleness was also more pronounced for certain groups. In 2006, about 8 percent of rural eighteen-to twenty-four-year-old males were idle, which increased by half to over 12 percent ten years later However, the growth in rural idleness is primarily driven by white eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds, as percentages of idle non-Hispanic black and Hispanic rural adults this age actually dropped.

The most dramatic difference, however, was evident for rural high school dropouts, 45 percent of whom were idle, up 13 percentage points over just ten years.

Malkus concludes by pointing out that rural schools do face challenges, “most of which are related to the lack of density and scale, that affect their nature and operations. … The remoteness brings infrastructure challenges that leave them behind the technological curve.” Still, Malkus insists, “overall, rural schools and students enjoy many advantages,” and it’s this emphasis on building upon their strengths that dovetails with the introduction’s calls to move away from the deficit model.

The "No Longer Forgotten" anthology is a valuable resource on rural education, and this series will return to it to examine some of the challenges for practitioners working in these communities. But in our next installment, we’ll turn to some of NCAN’s own data on students in rural communities from the Benchmarking Project.

Want to discuss college access in the rural context further? Please feel free to contact me with questions, comments, and resources at

(Photo by John Reed on Unsplash)