Top Students From Rural America Shun Elite Colleges, Study Finds

April 30, 2010

Despite their professed commitments to recruiting talented young people from the nation's hinterlands, prestigious colleges generally are much less likely to enroll highly qualified students from rural communities than comparable students from the cities and suburbs, according to a study being presented here on Sunday at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

Two other studies being presented here, however, offer some good news for advocates of rural students: Being from a rural area, in itself, does not appear to significantly hinder their efforts to earn a two-year or four-year degree. And among one subset of the population generally regarded as educationally disadvantaged—the children of nontraditional families—young people from rural communities are better off in terms of their prospects of going to college.

The study examining rural students' access to top colleges was conducted by Matthew A. Holsapple and Julie Posselt, both doctoral students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and research assistants at the university's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. They took data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Educational Longitudinal Survey of 2002 and examined the enrollments of students from different backgrounds at the top 50 universities and top 50 liberal-arts colleges, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report in 2004.

"We find that even holding constant academic achievement and expectations, socioeconomic traits, and financial-aid factors, rural students are as much as 2.5 times less likely to enroll in one of the U.S. News top-ranked institutions compared to non-ranked four-year institutions," a summary of their findings says.

In trying to tease out why qualified rural students are so much less likely to enroll in such institutions, the researchers note that the factors influencing rural students' enrollment patterns are significantly different than those influencing the enrollment patterns of students from urban or suburban environments. For example, the positive correlation between having a high grade-point average and enrolling in a top-ranked college was much stronger for rural students and those from other communities, while socioeconomic status appeared to play much less of a role in the enrollment of rural students in highly ranked colleges than it did in the enrollments for students from the suburbs and cities. And only among rural students were men more likely than women with comparable qualifications and backgrounds to enroll in highly ranked institutions.

One huge factor in the college choices of rural students, which appeared to play much less of a role in the college choices of others, was consideration of how enrolling in a given undergraduate institution would affect their prospects of getting into a well-regarded graduate school. Rural students who characterized their graduate-school placement as "very important" were nine times as likely as comparable rural students who did not have such concerns to enroll in highly ranked colleges for their undergraduate education as opposed to some other four-year college.

Breaking New Ground

In a paper summarizing their results, the researchers say they break new ground with their findings on the role of considerations of graduate-school placement in enrollment decisions. "Research to date," the paper says, "typically portrays this choice as one in which high-school students are thinking exclusively about undergraduate education as the next step, not a choice that involves consideration of longer-term educational plans."

In examining differences between the other two populations their study focused on—urban and suburban students—the researchers did not find any significant difference in the odds of comparably highly qualified individuals enrolling in a top-ranked four-year college over an unranked one. However, suburban students were significantly more likely than their urban counterparts to enroll in a two-year college over an unranked four-year institution.

The researchers note that their study had some major limitations. One is that it did not take into account students' proximity to highly ranked colleges or regional differences in enrollments at such institutions, leaving open the possibility that suburban and urban students are simply benefiting from generally being closer to highly ranked colleges, especially if they live on the nation's East or West Coasts. The study also failed to take into account factors such as differences in the racial and class integration of rural, suburban, and urban schools.

"Being from a rural background may be a structural access barrier that constrains choice, in that rural schools' size and resources may impair institutional capacity to prepare students for the demands of admission to highly selective institutions," says the paper, which adds that more research needs to be done on the college-going culture in rural areas.

The two studies that offer some good news for rural students were conducted by three researchers at the National Research Center on Rural Education Support at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Soo-yong Byun, a postdoctoral fellow; Judith L. Meece, a professor of education; and Matthew J. Irvin, a research scientist. Both studies are based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics' National Educational Longitudinal Study, which tracked students who were eighth graders in 1988 over time.

In one study, the researchers conclude that the relatively low postsecondary-enrollment and degree-attainment rates of rural students are not a result of their geographic location, in itself, but stem from their greater likelihood than students elsewhere of coming from socioeconomic or demographic backgrounds associated with educational disadvantage. The researchers' paper summarizing their findings suggests that focusing on helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds is the key to increasing the college enrollment and success of students in rural areas.

In their other study, the researchers attempted to draw distinctions between rural and nonrural students in terms of how the likelihood of their completing a bachelor's degree is affected by various forms of "social capital," or the advantages they draw from social networks. Five forms of social capital were considered: family structure, the number of siblings, frequency of discussions between the student and his or her parents, frequency of discussions between the student's parents and the parents of his or her friends about the students' school or future career plans, and parental expectations for their child's education.

The researchers found that rural students raised in nontraditional families, such as those headed by single parents, were no less likely than their rural counterparts from traditional families to earn a bachelor's degree. In nonrural settings, by contrast, adolescents raised in nontraditional families were significantly less likely than those raised in traditional families to earn bachelor's degrees.

Citing cross-national studies showing that being raised by a single parent is much less of a disadvantage in countries where single-parent families benefit from government services or support from broader networks of relatives, the researchers suggest that the disadvantages rural American children experience from being raised in a nontraditional family might be offset by the strong kinship bonds and social ties associated with rural communities.