Big Country: How Variations in High School Graduation Plans Impact Rural Students

Jennifer Schiess and Andrew J. Rotherham – October 2015

More Americans than ever are pursuing postsecondary education, a decision that leads to higher lifetime earnings and reduces the likelihood of unemployment. Disparities in educational attainment persist, however, with a marked gap between rural Americans’ level of education and that of non-rural Americans.

In Big Country: How Variations in High School Graduation Plans Impact Rural Students, education policy experts Jennifer Schiess and Andrew J. Rotherham examine one factor that may contribute to that gap: high school rigor. Research has shown that the rigor of students’ high school curriculum is the most important predictor of postsecondary success. As such, Schiess and Rotherham begin their work by asking whether rural high schools graduate a higher proportion of students under less rigorous standards than non-rural high schools.

The data Schiess and Rotherham present and their initial findings have implications for policy in rural areas and for future research. They provide several recommendations for actions that policymakers can take now to benefit rural students:

States, districts, and schools must ensure that students in all schools have access to a rigorous curriculum

The authors found that there was a gap in access to high-level courses between rural and non-rural areas. Further, they also found that rural students enrolled in advanced courses were less likely to pass Advanced Placement exams than their non-rural peers. Several policies could benefit these students. Schools and districts could leverage distance education and technology to expand AP and dual credit options. Schools or districts could also develop partnerships with local higher education institutions to expand upper-level course offerings. States should also consider using such partnerships to help develop programs targeted at helping students that fail to meet college-readiness benchmarks.

States should consider increasing rigor in graduation requirements

First-year college students are enrolling in remedial courses at increasing rates. This suggests a disconnect between high school graduation requirements and the knowledge base needed for postsecondary success. Additionally, though their sample was too small to establish causality, Schiess and Rotherham found that rural students are more likely than their urban peers to choose less-rigorous diploma options and to opt out of higher level math courses such as algebra II.

States and districts should ensure that rural students have access to high-quality curricular planning and college counseling

Rural students are often first-generation college students and may lack a network of adults who can provide information on postsecondary options, requirements, and financing.  States must ensure that rural students are informed and prepared for college-level work by providing them access to assistance with postsecondary goal setting, high school course selection, and applications for admissions and financial aid. This does not necessarily require additional staff: specialized training or community partnerships could enable teachers, other school personnel, or third parties to fill this role.

Data collection and reporting should be improved to allow analysis based on rural locale

Schiess and Rotherham could not draw definitive conclusions about rigor in rural education because of the lack of district-level data. As such, the authors recommend that states continue to develop statewide longitudinal data systems that link K-12 to higher education and workforce data, and that they should be incentivized or even required to report data with geographic indicators.

Blog Post by Jennifer Schiess