Rural students attend college at lower rates than their urban and suburban peers. The economic recession and cultural divide could widen the education gap.

College Attendance Among Rural Students Takes a Dive


  • Although many graduate from high school, rural students are the least likely to go to college.
  • The economic recession and cultural divide threatens to widen the education gap.
  • Many rural students remain doubtful of their ability to earn a college degree.
  • First-generation rural students are the new underrepresented minority on campus.

Like their inner-city peers, rural high school students struggle to access quality educators, Advanced Placement courses, and the kind of college counseling that makes a difference. Both urban and rural high schoolers are more likely to live in poverty and lack the necessary support — family, financial, and academic — to make it to college.

While the push for college diversity has made underprivileged urban high school students the focus of education surveys and studies, funding initiatives, dedicated scholarships, and college recruiting and retention programs, underprivileged rural students are largely ignored.

Rural students are the least likely to make the leap from high school to college and have historically higher college dropout rates.

Despite the fact juniors and seniors at rural high schools are more likely to take dual-enrollment courses, score higher than urban students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and graduate at a higher percentage than the national average, they're the least likely to make the leap to college. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of dual-enrolled rural students has declined, as have rural completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A sign of intent to go to college, FAFSA completions dropped 10% nationally, 13% in rural areas, and 15% in small towns. The largely rural states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and West Virginia each saw declines of at least 19%.

Rural Education Levels Lag Behind Those of Suburbs, Cities

According to the Department of Agriculture, just 1 in 5 rural adults has a college degree. That's up significantly from 5% of rural adults in 1960, but the national average is closer to 1 in 3. While education levels are rising across the board, fewer rural high school students are making the leap to become first-generation college students.

Most first-generation college students are students of color. Rural students, over 70% of whom are white, are less likely to be enrolled in college than students from cities, suburbs, and towns: Just 29% of rural Americans aged 18-24 are enrolled in colleges and universities, compared to 42% of all Americans in this age range.

Just 29% of rural Americans aged 18-24 are enrolled in colleges and universities, compared to 42% of all Americans in this age range.

Rural high schoolers are a low priority for both public school systems and higher education. Their numbers are small, and sparsely populated areas in Mississippi and South Dakota don't add much to the states' total student enrollment, leading to less funding for rural high schools.

Rural schools also get less attention from college recruiters. Outside pursuing diversity goals, colleges tend to prefer to recruit from wealthy communities. Recruiters don't make the trek out, and a dwindling number of rural students make the trek in.

All of this has ultimately helped widen the college attainment gap between rural and urban students. As COVID-19 lockdowns tighten the financial strain on rural communities, more rural students could remain siloed in what academics call "education deserts."

Rural Students Are the New Underrepresented Minority

Rural college-going increased precipitously in recent decades. But that rise eventually slowed and then stalled, and now shows signs of dropping. While rural students need the same help navigating college as their inner-city peers, their plight is often "overshadowed by attention to the challenges faced by nonwhite high school graduates in cities."

Like many low-income, first-generation students, rural students may feel ignorant of college's unspoken norms — from negotiating financial aid to talking with professors. In addition, rural students often feel sidelined by the political climate.

According to the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, people in rural areas are "twice as likely to feel powerless and marginalized as those in cities and suburbs." Charles Fluharty, president and CEO of the University of Iowa's Rural Policy Research Institute, calls disdain toward rural people "the last acceptable prejudice in America."

Rural Opinions of College Lean Skeptical

Rural attitudes toward the value of higher education remain skeptical. Rural areas once offered good jobs that didn't require college degrees. But now company towns have dried up, and the job market increasingly asks for a bachelor's degree as a minimum qualification.

Indeed, rural students face steep barriers to college. Many lack internet access or live far away from the nearest college campus. Many come from low-income backgrounds. Drug and mental health issues can run rampant, while childcare and reliable transportation may be all but impossible. Remote areas are also subject to "brain drain," in which the best and brightest go off to college and never come back.

Many rural students face steep barriers to college, including a lack of reliable internet access, low-income backgrounds, and drug and mental health issues.

Though some rural students don't want to move away for college, most still want a degree — a whopping 81% in fact, according to one 2020 study. However, just 65% of students surveyed expected to complete a college degree.

Rural students are more likely to underestimate their college potential compared to nonrural students. But not going to college redoubles the rural sense of alienation. Less educated rural people report the highest feelings of marginalization. College provides many students with their first cross-cultural interactions — a powerful learning experience for small-town students who tend to value personal contact.

Closing the Rural College Gap

The 2016 election highlighted the concerns of rural America, leading colleges to reconsider rural students. Some institutions ramped up outreach efforts, provided counseling services, and built better bridges for community college transfers — a crucial transition for at-risk students.

Schools such as the University of North Carolina system, the University of Georgia, Clemson University, and Texas A&M University now maintain rural student enrollment plans along with diversity enrollment plans. Other institutions are taking a backdoor approach. Northern Michigan University, for example, offers free internet to rural students, so long as they take one class per year.

The College Board has also made gestures of support toward rural students, including customized guides, access to coding academies and test prep, and "academic recognition" of rural students' underrepresented status.

In the aftermath of another U.S. presidential election, college students await potential aid in the form of student debt forgiveness or free college. Sweeping federal relief could help kickstart lagging rural student enrollment. But in the meantime, ongoing economic and cultural upheavals threaten to lock rural students out.


Feature Image: LizCoughlan / Shutterstock