Take Me Home Country Roads? Exploring the College Attendance Patterns of Rural Youth

Daniel Player – July 2015

Recent estimates point to a 10 percentage-point gap in college attainment between rural students and the national average. Daniel Player of the University of Virginia explores this gap in Take Me Home Country Roads? Exploring the College Attendance Patterns of Rural Youth. He uses a nationally representative sample of 13,000 rural and non-rural youth who were followed for 10 years, beginning in the 10th grade, to track their college attainment goals. He also looks at whether economic and informational constraints and community/family expectations affect rural students’ college attainment, coming to several surprising conclusions.

There were significant differences between rural and non-rural students’ expectations of finishing at least a bachelor’s degree.

Although all respondents were more optimistic about their college prospects as sophomores than as seniors, rural students saw a larger drop-off in expectations than non-rural students. However, much of the college expectations gap disappeared when Player expanded the definition of college completion to include two-year degrees and one-year certificates.

Rural students had higher scores on reading and math achievement tests and graduated from high school at higher rates than their non-rural peers.

This finding does not provide evidence that rural students underperform when it comes to basic academic achievement, but also may not accurately reflect the type of academic rigor needed to prepare a student for college. Further, while comparable percentages of rural and non-rural students took college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT, a smaller proportion of rural students enroll in high-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Although rural students were more likely to live in poverty, they sought ought information from their school counselors at similar rates as their non-rural peers.

Player found that rural students were more likely to belong to families with average annual incomes less than $50,000 than non-rural students. Rural students were also more likely to attend a school with a higher percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch. There did not seem to be an information gap between rural and non-rural students, although it has been suggested that rural and low-income students often have less access to counselors. However, the survey did not include questions on the quality or accuracy of the information that students received.

Rural students were no more likely than non-rural students to express strong ties to their families and communities.

This goes against traditional beliefs about rural students’ community ties and the impact of family connections. In fact, they were more likely than non-rural students to say that it was important to “get away from this area of the country” for college. However, rural students were also less likely to say that they believed that one or more of their parents expected them to graduate from college. This suggests that family influence may contribute to rural students’ lowered expectations and attainment.

Even after accounting for factors such as parental income, academic proficiency, and college preparatory courses, the postsecondary attainment gap for rural students persists.

This surprising finding means that rural students are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than non-rural students with similar characteristics. This held true for any type of college attainment—bachelor’s and associate’s degrees as well as certificates. Rural students were also less likely to stay in school and complete a degree once entering college, contributing to the attainment gap. These findings suggest there is an unknown factor that contributes to the rural, non-rural college attainment gap.

Further research is necessary to understand the attainment gap.

Player recommends that researchers continue to focus on the transition from high school to college. In particular, he believes that they—as well as rural parents and educators—may benefit from a better understanding of the shift in college expectations that occurred between 10th and 12th grade in his sample. In addition, more research into the college experiences of rural students could provide a clearer idea of why they have lower persistence rates. This knowledge would help administrators and policymakers better understand how to support college-going rural youth on the path to and through college.

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