Rural Colleges Pay Off for Students: Report

Rural-serving colleges and universities tend to give students a positive return on investment, according to a report from Boston College researchers.
portrait of Bennett Leckrone
Bennett Leckrone
Read Full Bio

Reporter, Business Education

Bennett Leckrone is a news writer for BestColleges. Before joining BestColleges, Leckrone reported on state politics with the nonprofit news outlet Maryland Matters as a Report for America fellow. He previously interned for The Chronicle of Higher Ed...
Published on March 13, 2024
Edited by
portrait of Alex Pasquariello
Alex Pasquariello
Read Full Bio

Managing Editor, News

Alex Pasquariello is a senior news editor for BestColleges. Prior to joining BestColleges he led Metropolitan State University of Denver's digital journalism initiative. He holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University....
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon / Moment / Getty Images

  • Rural-serving colleges and universities tend to be affordable, accessible, and they help students finish degrees quicker, according to a report from Boston College researchers.
  • These rural colleges also bring students a return on their investment in the long term.
  • Rural-serving colleges also tend to offer similar social mobility when compared to nonrural-serving institutions.
  • While students at rural colleges tended to statistically earn less than those at nonrural institutions, that difference was found to be substantively small.

Rural colleges and universities are key points of access to higher education in their communities — and new research shows that attending a rural-serving institution tends to pay off.

Rural-serving institutions tend to be accessible, affordable, and offer a timely route to a degree, according to research by Angela Boatman, a Boston College associate professor of higher education, and doctoral student Shadman Islem.

These schools perform comparably to — and even sometimes better than — nonrural-serving institutions when it comes to affordability and degree completion time. And Boatman and Islem found that they also tend to provide a return on investment for students.

In terms of social mobility, rural-serving institutions are just as good as those in nonrural areas at providing students with an earnings premium, Islem told BestColleges, challenging the idea that students need to leave rural areas to find economic opportunity.

I think a common narrative is that if you want a high-paying job and if you want to build that socioeconomic mobility in your life, you might have to move to a more urban area or at least to a region that has a stronger foothold in industries, like tech or science, Islem said.

We found that for the institution you go to, whether it's highly rural or not very rural, that doesn't matter in terms of meeting that threshold.

The level to which a college is rural-serving is defined by the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC) based on:

  • The percentage of its home county and neighboring counties classified as rural
  • The population of its home county
  • Whether its home county is adjacent to a metropolitan area
  • The percentage of degrees it awards in natural resources, agriculture, and parks and recreation

Rural-serving institutions (RSIs) make up a large portion of the U.S. higher education landscape.

More than half of all community colleges are classified as RSIs, alongside 46% of public four-year colleges and 33% of private colleges, according to an ARRC report. Additionally, a third of all historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and 18% of all Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) are considered RSIs.

RSIs also tend to enroll more federal Pell Grant recipients than non-RSIs.

Boatman and Islem used data from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), coupled with defined rural-serving institutions, to look at economic returns for students. IHEP in a 2023 report found that colleges largely met a minimum economic threshold for students, meaning students could make as much as high school graduates, plus enough to recoup their investment within 10 years.

IHEP's initial report found that more than 2,400 institutions nationwide help students meet that minimum economic return.

While Boatman and Islem found that students who graduate from RSIs are statistically likely to earn less money than those who attend non-RSIs, the difference was substantively small and students were likely to meet that minimum economic threshold and get a return on their investment.

Boatman underscored that the return on investment for students doesn't stop after they've recouped the cost of their education.

There are both short-term earnings benefits, but you start to see the economic benefits for college 10, 20, 30 years after, and they come with more than just monetary benefits to the individual, Boatman told BestColleges.

And I think that's a part of what's important about the return is just understanding there will be some investment that you make, but that you will reap that investment, and you will continue to see returns on that over your adult life.

Researchers have highlighted the value of regional schools in both rural and urban environments in recent years as both community anchors and lifelines to higher education for historically underserved students.

The ARRC last year identified 474 regional public universities, publishing a definitive list in order to bolster research and advocacy for the schools. About half of those institutions are rural-serving institutions.