The Myth of the Rural Attainment Gap: Rural Access to Higher Education and the Problem of the Education Desert

The Myth of the Rural Attainment Gap:

Rural Access to Higher Education and the Problem of the Education Desert

Franklin Eccher

Public Schools and Public Policy

Mira Debs

May 3, 2017


The narrative of the state of rural education in America has largely been one of failure and the necessity of intervention. The 2016 election, especially, looms large in the national consciousness, with the caricature of the uneducated rural voter immediately becoming the monolithic symbol of Trumpism. Explanations of this voting phenomenon range from ignorance to resentment, but oftentimes fail to thoroughly empathize and understand the source and direction of those frustrations. Katherine Cramer, a political science professor from the University of Wisconsin perhaps identifies the problem more productively in her recent NPR interview, in which she says,

Many voters have racial and economic resentments, but the thing that surprised me in my research was how common it was for people in small towns to talk about these resentments with reference to their towns (Cramer, 2016).

“Rural resentment” is resentment with rural communities themselves, the victims now of aging, shrinking population demographics, more so than resentment with a certain party or figure.

At the heart of these rural communities ultimately lies their schools. An immediate gut-reaction to election analyses like FiveThirtyEight’s “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote For Trump” (Silver, 2016), is to missionize the quest to bring education to rural communities. As I will argue in this paper, there is, assuredly, an opportunity gap between rural and urban students, especially on the developmental cusp of one’s choice whether or not to seek higher education. However, first, this is an opportunity gap, not an attainment gap, and a rural student’s choice whether or not to pursue higher education has much more to do with their expectation of success and a myriad of other social factors than any inherent ability to succeed. Further, a rural student’s decision to pursue higher education is also a geographic decision. To choose higher education is likely a choice to leave their rural community, which is both a deterrent from their decision to attend college and, once they have completed a degree, a deterrent from their decision to return home. Thus, the current state of rural education presents a paradox in which a suffering community struggles to send students to college at all, and then struggles to retain the talented students that it does send to college.

For those reasons, my proposed solutions center around improving rural access to higher education not solely in the spirit of educating Trump voters, but also in order to heal rural communities whose cultures depend so highly on their schools.

My paper will first explore the historical and political underpinnings of the current state of rural access to higher education, as well as attempts that have been made to alleviate existing problems. This background will preface my original data analysis concerning the longitudinal educational decision-making of rural students. I will then utilize this research to bolster a number of possible policy recommendations geared towards improving rural access to higher education and revitalizing rural communities.


The dominant narrative of rural schools as one of failure is perhaps the most destructive element of the movement for improved rural access to higher education. Rural communities today stand at the end of a long history of economic and social transformation, and will continue to change far into the future. However, one relative constant in the history of rural communities is the essentiality of the school as the orbital center of a rural community’s culture and identity (Tieken, 2014). Much of the reason for this is that, even though many students “flee” for the cities after high school, rural communities have historically been home to more dependent children than cities (Reeves, 1945). With higher proportions of children and few opportunities for community gathering outside of the local school, school communities define rural communities. The historical post-secondary aspirations of these students as well as these interactions with their communities will compose the focus of my background.

Firstly, a thorough deconstruction of the meaning of the classifications of “rural” and “urban” has been and should continue to be explored. If the space was available here, I absolutely would. However, for my purposes throughout this paper I will operate under the conventional classification of “rural” as an “other” in relation to urban spaces, or as a “nonmetropolitan” geographic characterization (United States Census Bureau, 2010).

Rural schools have long struggled with both a real logistic disadvantage and a resulting disadvantage in perceived quality. The reasons for this are many. For one, attracting and retaining experienced, quality teachers in small, isolated, likely impoverished communities is a notable obstacle (Monk, 2007). Rural communities are also grappling with the reality of the changing nature of work in America. As low-skilled manufacturing labor continues to decline, job opportunity in rural communities are only becoming more scarce (Glasmeier & Salant, 2006). Rural schools also face a demographic problem: that qualified younger adults are more attracted to urban areas for increased job opportunity while older adults are attracted to rural communities for improved quality of life (Herzog & Pittman, 1995). These contrasting flows create rural communities with a high proportion of low-income adults and young people, and high-income older people with less of a stake in the schools that drive their community.

In part because of these difficulties, rural high school graduation rates and college enrollment have lagged notoriously behind those in urban districts, but this gap is continuing to close. In 1970, less than half of rural adults over 25 had a high school degree and less than one in ten had a college degree, while in 2000 more than three quarters had a high school degree and 15% had a college degree (Gibbs, 2005). Studies now disagree whether high school graduation rates are higher or lower for rural or urban students, largely hinging their arguments on varying rural classifications, a sign at least that rural high school graduation rates are pulling even (Jordan, Kostandini, & Mykerezi, 2012). However, college attendance is still notably lacking for rural students, a result of both cultural and geographic factors.

Cultural expectations and geographic deterrents continue to reinforce boundaries to higher education for rural students. Benjamin Robbins’s senior Sociology thesis at Yale, “’People Like Us Don’t Go There’: Local Culture and College Aspirations in Rural Nebraska” (2012), deals with the cultural aspect quite explicitly, drawing from in-depth interviews to tease out some of these factors at play. As I will explore briefly later on, rural students carry a larger assumption of failure with them in their entrance into higher education. Geographic education barriers have borrowed the colloquial term “Education Deserts,” referring to the literal absence of higher education facilities in sparsely populated areas of the country (Hillman & Weichman, 2016). Although vocational or two-year degree opportunities may be available, four year colleges in states like Wyoming and North Dakota are far and few between. With more than half of college students attending school within 50 miles of their home, this considerable distance is of concern.

That said, more rural high school graduates are attending college than ever before. As Laura Pappano’s consecutive New York Times articles earlier this year indicated, “Colleges Discover the Rural Student” (2017), and “Voices From Rural America on Why (or Why Not) to Go to College” (2017), there is a heightened sense of the value of rural perspectives in higher education. As the son of two fly-fishermen from rural western Colorado in my sophomore year at Yale, I believe I am somewhat of a product of this new awareness.

However, as the rural-urban higher education opportunity gap (arguably) narrows, of equal concern is the heightened effect of flight from rural communities, especially among talented students. This is ultimately the purpose of my following diagnosis: both to identify the current state of the rural/urban higher education gap and also to pinpoint the ways in which increasing access to higher education for rural students farther away from their communities, without encouraging their eventual return to those communities, may be doing harm in unintended ways.

Evidence/Data Analysis


For the purposes of this project, I utilized data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which began in 1997 and was conducted over the course of 16 yearly rounds to the year 2013. Although further surveys may have been conducted in 2017, this data has yet to become available. The NLSY is a product of the National Longitudinal Surveys (NLS) program, directed by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The NLSY undertook a similar project in 1979 (NLSY79), which has seen more thorough investigation (at least in my own findings) than NLSY97. Both NLSY79 and NLSY97 began with a group of respondents aged 12 to 18 upon their first interview, and then followed up with those same respondents for a yearly round of follow-up interviews. Each respondent was coded with an ID that allows for the anonymous tracking of individual responses over the course of the 16 rounds. 8,984 respondents were interviewed in the first round, with an 80% retention rate of the sample size by round 16. NLSY97 is composed of two sub-samples, two thirds of which are designed to be representative of the US as a whole, and one third of which are designed to oversample Hispanic, Latino, and Black respondents. 51% of initial respondents were male, and 49% were female. Although my research did not explicitly explore the racial and gendered dynamics of the NLSY97 sample, any and all of these results can and should be cross-referenced with these variables I have explored for future study.

After seeing the NLSY79 data sourced in other works on this subject (e.g. Rural Education and Training in the New Economy, Gibbs et al.1997), I looked into the NLSY data myself and noted the essentiality of longitudinal data for my area of study. Longitudinal data specifically allows for both the minute and expansive tracking of flows over time, presenting not just a snapshot of a sample size at one time but instead a historical process of experiences and decision-making. With such an immense store of data, my research really only skims the surface.

Geographic Flows

Between 2010 and 2012, for the first time in American history, rural populations actually fell (Cromartie, 2013). Unsurprisingly for a cross-sectional sampling of American young adults, the NLSY97 data reflected this shift even before the more dramatic shift in 2010. While the 2010 – 2012 dip was likely also affected by the housing crisis and a slowing of recreation-based rural economies, representatives of the NLSY97 sample were beginning to urbanize as soon as they reached an old enough age to be able to feasibly move. I have, to some extent, simplified this relationship with this figure. I have removed those respondents that moved outside the US as well as those that, for whatever reason, were not interviewed in subsequent rounds. It is important to note that while the proportion of urban respondents rose, the actual number of urban respondents fell from 6090 to 5889, while the number of rural respondents fell much more dramatically from 2047 to 1118.

With such a dramatic flight from rural areas for these respondents, of course, the next logical question is simply why? For respondents on the cusp of their entry into or departure from post-secondary education, where they decide to go and if they decide to come back is key.

Figure 1: Geographic Place of Residence

Student Expectations

One critical element of a student’s decision to seek or not to seek higher education is their expectation of success or failure. One NLSY97 survey question from the year 2000 was administered as follows:

Now think ahead to when you turn 30 years old. What is the percent chance that you will have a four-year college degree by the time you turn 30?

At anywhere from age 15 to age 21, the answer to this question is likely to play a significant role in a child’s further educational decision-making. I have presented here the results of this survey question as both a mean and median in order to adjust for answers that may polarize a simple average. Although arguably slight, these survey results represent a clear doubt among rural students about their ability to succeed in a traditional 4-year Bachelor’s degree program.

Figure 2: Expectation of Degree Attainment by Age 30

Degree Attainment

For my first attempt to parse the educational attainment of rural and urban NLSY respondents, I looked solely at outcomes. After separating each student by their “rural” or “urban” coding in their initial 1997 survey results, I then tracked their degree attainment and type each year afterwards (with the exception of 2012, which was unavailable for this question). These results, especially in light of all of the rhetoric about the rural attainment gap, are surprising. If it seems as though these graphs are nearly identical, it is because they are. Not only the proportion of degree receivers, but also the rate at which they received those degrees, are nearly identical.

Figure 3(a): Degree Attainment Over Time – Rural Students

Figure 3(b): Degree Attainment Over Time – Urban Students

Conditional Attainment and Enrollment

However, as I discovered, looking solely at the outcome of a degree masked a number of other important factors, and I recognized that I needed to find a representation that more thoroughly explored the space in between successive degrees. As Gibbs writes in Rural Education and Training in the New Economy (1998):

The likelihood that a person completes college can be understood as the product of a succession of events, each conditional upon previous decisions. The college graduate must first acquire a high school diploma, then decide to attend college, and then complete a program of study. These decisions are determined by personal attributes and preferences as well as by family, labor market, and societal forces.

Table 1: Conditional Attainment Rates by Geographic Location (1997 Coding, 2013 Results)

As I have attempted to make clear with the above table, each percentage represents the proportion of the preceding demographic of respondents. Each of the six percentages within the two blue boxes is a proportion of those that graduated with any degree type. In representing the data conditionally instead of nominally, a statistic like “Went to College,” which is nearly identical between urban and rural respondents when taken as a proportion of the total number of respondents, becomes much more significant as a proportion solely of high school graduates. The four proportions I have highlighted in green represent two significant, possibly mutually-cancelling aspects of the above “Degree Attainment Over Time” representation (Figures 3(a) and 3(b)):

  1. More urban high school graduates than rural high school graduates attended at least some college.
  2. Of the rural students who attended college, more rural students completed a degree program than did urban students.

These two variables could possibly cancel each other out in that a) although a smaller pool of rural students are pursuing higher education, b) a higher proportion of those rural students are graduating. This is an especially salient point in the context of the above representation of student expectations (Figure 1). Even though rural students, on average, reported lower expectations, those that did pursue higher education found higher rates of success.

When Gibbs first explored the NLSY data from the 1979 cohort (Gibbs, 1998), he found a similar but wider gap between college enrollment rates (56% rural to 65% urban), and graduation rates that were nearly equal for 2- and 4- year programs (53% rural to 52% urban). While Gibbs observed nearly equal success among rural and urban college-goers, I would go so far as to say here that rural college-goers may even be finding more success than urban college-goers.

Likely due to availability of access, rural students obtain a notably larger proportion of 2-year degrees. However, the steep jump in 4-year degree attainment for rural students (up to 54.5% of rural degree holders from 39% between 1982 – 1989) could be an indicator of a larger movement to urban areas capable of providing those programs.

Where Are They Now?

There are all sorts of approaches to examining more deeply the geographic implications for these rural degree-seekers. The way that I chose, which overlooks many of the racial, socioeconomic, familial, cultural, and gendered factors that may be at play in this decision-making process, was to simply ask, “Where are they now?” To answer that question, I filtered for the students that were originally coded as “rural,” filtered for those that had attained any kind of degree higher than a high school diploma, and then tallied their geographic coding as of 2013. By the year 2013, even if a student had left their rural community for an urban community in order to attain their degree, there is a reasonable chance that they could have returned to their rural community. The average age of the NLSY97 respondents by the year 2013 was anywhere between ages 28 – 34, an age when those graduates may have been settling down, having children, and becoming homeowners. Strikingly, few respondents are returning to their rural communities.

Figure 4: Geographic Location of Participants from Rural Origins with a Degree Higher than High School (1997 Coding, 2013 Results)

This last representation demonstrates perhaps the most significant detrimental impact of the pursuit of higher education from rural communities. Without logistically-feasible access to higher education in their rural communities, those that take the risk of leaving for the urban areas that can provide that education are not coming back. In this way, “education deserts” are not only creating but exacerbating the problem. When the search for educational opportunity removes degree-seekers from their communities, those degree-seekers, with the greatest ability to motivate future rural students and to positively impact their communities, are no longer a resource.

Proposed Solutions

Thus far I have presented more diagnoses than prescriptions. Rural access to higher education is a sticky subject, one that is inseparable from the rural communities that produce rural high school graduates. I will present here a concise review of aspects that I find essential to supporting both rural students seeking higher education as well as the communities that rural college-goers leave behind.

  • Economic solutions are not the only solutions.

The Obama administration undertook a notable “rural revitalization” strategy in 2014 as part of a broader program to fight poverty which brought in Tom Vilsack, then the Secretary of Agriculture. Two of the five “promise zones” targeted in the program were rural areas, including one in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. On the one hand, it is imperative that rural communities are part of the conversation. As Vilsack said in a talk with NPR,

[I]f you take a look at the persistently poor counties in the United States, there’s 703 of them. And of the 703, 571 persistently poor counties are rural in nature. So it is very much a rural issue (Vilsack, 2014)[.]

However, similar to programs like Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s neoliberal competitive grant approach does little to actually intervene and support rural communities. Except for a group of AmeriCorps volunteers, promise zone counties receive little on-the-ground support. Rural communities are suffering in an economic way, absolutely, but this money needs to go towards supporting actual revitalization and more attractive work for returning college graduates.

  • The rural achievement gap is an opportunity gap, not an attainment gap.

As I have explored above, attainment is not the problem. Access, on the other hand, is. Once in degree programs, rural students complete them at or above the rates that urban students do, but an enormous number of factors, from socioeconomic status to expectations to the logistics of travel, reinforce the barrier.

One method to alleviate this gap could be the strengthening of community college opportunities to serve students that might not otherwise attend college. With more than a quarter of rural degree-holders seeking 2-year degrees, community colleges that provide access and affordability (and even a bridge to a 4-year degree) could provide an essential institution for training and retaining rural high school graduates. Rural students seeking 2-year degrees often face similarly daunting barriers to obtaining their degree, including “(a) overall unfamiliarity with college; (b) low education levels; (c) financial insecurity; (d) family responsibilities; and (e) distance, inadequate transportation, and housing,” (Nikolay, 2011). With more affordable community college opportunities and more support systems within those community colleges, rural students may consider opportunities they might not have otherwise.

Another is the incorporation of stronger “distance learning” programs in the absence of trained faculty and resources to support strong AP or other advanced level curriculum. In a study done on rural distance learning (Hannum, Irvin, Banks, & Farmer, 2009), most rural schools had implemented some form of distance learning and were mostly satisfied with it, but two thirds of those schools indicated a need for additional course offerings. Especially in situations in which education deserts act as a barrier, students that are capable of pursuing resources outside of the scope of what is offered by the school should have those options made available to them. These resources could also expand to include stronger online degree programs for rural students who struggle logistically to access an actual college campus after graduation.

  • Strengthening rural school environments strengthens rural community environments.

In the same way that students from impoverished inner-city schools may view their enrollment in college as an “escape,” rural students that overcome the odds and pursue college further than 50 miles from their homes may feel a similar way. Students that “escape” are not students that are likely to return.

The existing bond between rural schools and rural communities may well be the greatest asset to raising student (and adult) expectations of success and could tie students more positively to the communities they leave behind. Bruce Miller’s 1995 paper “The Role of Rural Schools in Community Development” lays out an array of tangible ideas for implementing revitalization policy. Many of these ideas place students at the forefront of infrastructure projects in their communities, building guided task-forces to tackle issues in their communities that affect them every day, like creating areas for public recreation or working with the local Forest Service. These opportunities seek to connect students with adults in their community and build a sense of shared responsibility and respect for the place that they live (Miller, 1995). Although the current federal administration may quell optimism about the continuance of any kind of rural grant project, this is the kind of resource allocation that can build on a community’s strengths and provide real healing.

Conclusions and Limitations

Due simply to the limited scope of this paper, both my analyses and my recommendations run into significant limitations. Given more time and more expertise with data management, the NLSY data provides much more explicit geographic characterization options than solely “rural” or “urban.” There even exists data on migration patterns for each student in the survey that could provide a much more nuanced view of where and when the NLSY97 cohort is moving.  In addition, there are many more angles to be explored in the decision-making process of rural students than simply expectations. As mentioned above, stratifications based on race, class, and gender, would all be relevant avenues of exploration, as well as more in-depth investigation of rural school and community culture. Further, my policy recommendations are more guidelines, or ways of thinking about solutions, rather than specific strategies for policy implementation. Solutions must provide tangible logistical improvements for rural students seeking higher education. We can not talk about what is best for rural students without talking to rural students.

As with any problem in education, there is no easy cure-all. Rural access to higher education presents a peculiar case in that encouraging access can also further hurt already suffering communities by inciting talented students to leave. That is why any policy solution must be twofold; it must both empower rural students to feel confident in their abilities to succeed at the next level, and must encourage them to be stakeholders in the rural communities that they come from. Any comprehensive policy solution must first treat rural students as rational decision-makers facing tough choices, rather than writing off these students as inherently unprepared for an urbanized, industrialized future.

[Word Count: 3945]

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