• September 4, 2015

Top Students From Rural America Shun Elite Colleges, Study Finds

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.


1. princeton67 - April 30, 2010 at 04:10 pm

In 1975, after graduating from Princeton and Chicago,I went south, to Douglas, Georgia to teach high schoool English at Coffee County High School. One year later, I started an SAT Prep class; two years later, I started the first AP courses (Lit. and Comp.; Lang. and Comp). Four years later, a student received a free ride to Harvard, starting a two-decade run of acceptances at top schools.
My point: colleges need to recruit teachers to recruit students. If no one familiarizes the top high-schoolers with the experience of the top schools, they won't apply. Takes a lot of courage for a kid from a small Georgia town without a McDonald's even to want to apply to some out-of-state school.

2. 11182967 - April 30, 2010 at 04:52 pm

Researchers on this issue need to investigate social structures and attitudes. As a primarily commuter school in a small state we enroll a lot of what would be considered rural students--often commuting from 50 or more miles away. Many come from families and communities which, even when recognizing the necessity of education for young people, are leery of the dangers it represents--changes in cherished beliefs and attitudes, of course, but most of all a fear that education will lead to departure, a reasonable fear that often comes true. Further, rural students are more likely to be a source of family support, in one way or another--contributing financially, taking care of nana, watching sister's kids while she's at work, doing the sorts of "shadow" of "gray" economy activities which permit people of limited financial resources to live adequate lives (no suprise certainly that the research shows more girls being kept close than boys). If these pressures and attitudes often keep or take students away from local schools, imagine how they work at the prospect of a family member decamping to Yale or Vanderbilt or Oberlin or some other high falutin' place far away. As a parent once anxiously said of her incoming freshman student to our former VP, "Teach him well, but please don't change him."

3. fdcapobianco - May 01, 2010 at 09:35 am

Could it be that high school students simply are just getting much more sophisticated, more pratical in selecting an HEI that believe to be more aligned with their abilities rather than reflective of their preceived self image?

4. skocpol - May 01, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Like many other minority students, rural students are likely to experience culture shock and a persistent sense of socioeconomic deprivation when surrounded by large numbers of urban elite students at elite schools. Some thrive, others shrink. My wife (a Professor at Harvard) was told by a homesick student from the Midwest that her persistent stress levels dropped whenever she heard a professor with a familiar Midwest accent.

I was an academically talented, financially needy suburban Texas high school student. A Yale recruiter came through, but I just could't see myself making that big a step. Michigan State powerfully recruited Merit Scholars, and that seemed better. It was outstanding for me, and for the even more academically talented, financially needy home-state-school wife whom I met through an MSU student project. Subsequently we both were ready for graduate school at Harvard.

5. 22011344 - May 01, 2010 at 01:33 pm

Perhaps, the next round of research ought to look at the attitudes of admissions and financial aid officers at the so-called "top colleges." My daughter was a product of a hayseed town high school in a rural state in the Rocky Mountains. She was a top students with exceptional college board scores. She was accepted at every school she applied to; but the financial aid package was critical. She wanted to go to eityher of two "top" eastern schools, think seven sisters. The aid package from both was marginal -- in large part because of the distances and travel involved. As her dad and a college professor, I called both officials at both schools and laid out the additional need -- small compared to the original aid sum. One officer basically told me in polite terms to go to hell; and the second condescendingly told me that he was "sure that she could get into a good school closer to home." That daughter made Phi Beta Kappa and now holds a Ph.D. from one of the best schools in the world --neither of whom are on the East Coast. In my experience, the next study should include the personnel at the "elite schools."

6. willismg - May 01, 2010 at 05:10 pm

As a high school physics teacher in a somewhat less-than-affluent school, I routinely discouraged many of my students from going to the Ivy League, or similar schools. I had no doubt that many of them were capable, but I explained to the parents that there was definitely a "snob factor" to be considered. These kids would NEVER fit in at such a place and would be the target of unceasing condecension. I did, however, send several to top flight technical schools like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, CMU, etc.

7. kerr7920 - May 01, 2010 at 10:16 pm

For my child (raised in a small town) the chilly atmosphere at most elites really put him off. When he visited "very good" liberal arts colleges he typically received a warm welcome from admissions, and a culture of smiles and "hellos" prevailed. At the elite liberal arts colleges we visited, that warmth and welcoming attitude just wasn't there. The tone even from admissions had a bit of "let's see if you are good enough for us" coolness about it. At the end of the day, he followed his gut and decided to attend an excellent, but not elite, liberal arts college. Rural people place a higher value on kindness and community, and those are a bit scarcer on elite college campuses. Urban and suburban folks tend to place more value on status than community.

8. performance_expert - May 02, 2010 at 08:50 am

Other News: Top US private college like smarmy rich kids and the hope of donated endowment monies. Here is a perspective story: one of these "top collleges" is like two schools. The undergraduate/ college is like a rich kid nursery school. The graduate school is a research facility with researchers, some of who teach the rich kids. But they work the rich kids hard, they put the coal to them. Maybe not a bad system.

9. 22228715 - May 03, 2010 at 07:10 am

My first thought was proximity - which according to the article was not studied. Proximity includes all kinds of factors that affect enrollment choices. It begins with familiarity, even simple name recognition. We know that visiting a campus makes a huge difference in likelihood of going there, and travel costs money and time (one is unlikely to stop by and walk the campus of an institution far from home, unless it's on the way to somewhere else.) Also, students follow parents, other family members, and teachers who the student respects (think of the movie "The Blind Side") which is probably linked to both the numbers of graduates of large public versus small elite schools as well as the startlingly intense loyalty generated by even non-graduates of some of the large Midwestern and Southern spirit universities. Simply the relative power in the community of the private institutions in the Northeast versus the public institutions in the Midwest, West, and South probably explains at least some of it. And, I would guess, urban youth are socialized to be more independent and to travel in ways that rural youth are likely DIScouraged. So, going away to college has vastly different meaning. Just brainstorming.

10. bradleyhockey - May 03, 2010 at 08:23 am

Perhaps its time for the Ivies to rethink the admissions buzz words like 'community values' and learn from America's "rural" earnest midwestern students. For all the talk about "community" and "tradition" it seems the rural students walk the walk instead of talk the talk. I found this article about hazing at Princeton http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2010/04/26/25997/
disturbing. For all of the talk about respect- its no wonder families and students with strong values don't buy in and choose to go elsewhere. Perhaps its time for schools like Princeton to take a hard look at the community their admissions offices are creating. Respect and responsibility in action is very important to families who speak about "changing" their children.

11. dthornton9 - May 03, 2010 at 09:30 am

We not only discouraged, but forbade, our student from even considering applying for any school on the "left coasts." We simply did not want her in those environments or taught the things they teach. Further we did not believe in spending our hard-earned money - or allowing her to take huge loans - from schools which are teaching ideas and systems diametrically opposed to ours. Even certain midwestern schools were off the list - think Grinnell College in Iowa. We found the book "Choosing the RIght College" to be very useful and have recommended it/loaned it to all our friends. She is now preparing to attend a very well thought of, mid-size, southern, christian affiliated school and we couldn't be more pleased. She will receive an excellent education based on our values.

12. ramber - May 03, 2010 at 09:39 am

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13. kittybware - May 03, 2010 at 09:50 am

I worked for a few years at a tiny rural college and have several ideas why rural students don't pursue big schools in urban areas- The biggest is fear of the unknown: those big schools are full of non-white people, of drugs, of liberal ideas which are often frowned upon in the country (see dthornton9 above). They might go to college and learn to rethink some of the things they have been taught over the years. I found the small-town rural environment very stifling and small-minded, though it was only one area of the rural midwest. Some young folks are happy in rural areas and have no desire to leave and plan on working at the factory, on the farm, etc that their parents, uncles, etc work. They'll get a degree at a local college while staying close to home. Others think that they don't belong in the big city and are not prepared for a big college. It seems that some big city folks have the misconception that most rural folks are hicks and some rural folks have the misconception that most city folks are immoral and dangerous.

14. seadog - May 03, 2010 at 09:58 am

I find it interesting that the researchers seemed absolutely tone deaf to the issue of political and social values. It was the polite but clueless contempt for my way of life that made me uncomfortable at Yale. Classmates and faculty who invested great effort in the study of third world societies knew nothing about America. I put up with it because the resources and contacts made available to students there were superb. Our child leaves in three months to have the same experience in the same atmosphere. I disagree with the parents in comment #11 about the wisdom of isolating a child from this environment. In my experience, only close contact with the power elite can help a young person truly understand how our society makes its big decisions. If they send their student off with strong values, four years in New Haven will only strengthen them.

15. lakemendota - May 03, 2010 at 10:26 am

Some of these comments don't make any sense at all; generalizing from the specific. No, 6. willismg's comments seem especially nonsensical and ultimately very damaging to his advisees. Do you really discourage your students from attending some of the best schools in the country because you think that every ivy league school, every year, is entirely filled with rich snobs and that they would "NEVER" fit in? Wow. Not only is it wrong, it's narrow minded and bigoted. Your students owe you a big thanks for limiting their horizons and making sure that they will never be socially challenged.

16. sahara - May 03, 2010 at 10:38 am

It is horrifying to read that adults (teachers, parents) are "forbidding" their capable and deserving students to strive for the top, based simply on location! I was a rural student who went to an Ivy and have never regretted the exposure it gave me to everyone...including "chilly, status-minded urban people," with whom I learned to get along and with whom I have worked for decades now. How are you going to learn about the world if you don't go out and see it? Shame on these adults.

17. willismg - May 03, 2010 at 11:02 am

Hi, lakemendota, One need only spend a few minutes perusing the forums to see how vicious an attack from just a few of the so-called intellectual elite can become to somebody who disagrees with them, or is seen as not as cosmopolitan. My point is, at schools where the admissions criteria are more explicitly merit based, there is less chance for the more snotty subset of the wealthy students to be able to get to a critical mass and create their own form of despotic social oligarchy.

18. rulibrary - May 03, 2010 at 11:23 am

Dear princeton67
I was a child from a rural school who went to a "top" university in my own country. First, though, I made an attempt to apply to a top school in New York (where I had an uncle). I could not even get through the application process because my teachers had no idea how to help me. I agree with you that it takes enormous courage and determination (I went on to a school where no body had ever heard of my home town) for rural kids to make their way into a top school but once they are through... that determination is a powerful force for good!
I then became a school teacher who kept telling my students that they too can take big steps. I now teach at a research University in my own country, have a PhD from a US institution, and I still try to instil in my students that they can, and I will help them find a way. There is a saying: lets be the change we hope to see, and that is what I try to do. Well done for leading the way!

19. cac56 - May 03, 2010 at 02:33 pm

Why would a teacher (#6) discourage a student from attending an Ivy League school? My daughter will graduate this spring from an elite university.Coming from a rural state she had the encouragement of everyone, her teachers, coaches,.... down to her dentist. We all knew her opportunities were endless if given the chance. OK I'll say it, she attends Princeton and it is the absolutely the best decision she made. Not only has she received a top notch education, but lasting friendships from all socioeconomic levels. The institution has been nothing but superb. Throughout the four years with Princeton we did not encounter any "snobbish" students, faculty, or administrators. In short, if a student is accepted, Princeton cares enough not to let them fail.

20. ehyslopm - May 03, 2010 at 02:38 pm

As Dewey suggested, education IS change. Unless for purely instrumental reasons (certainly not unheard of in today's milieu), why else would someone pursue an education?

21. aaroncj - May 04, 2010 at 06:38 am

Our experience in helping our daughter decide between pursuit of enrollment at an elite private institution or attend a well-respected public university came down to simple economics.

My daughter had a strong interest in attending medical school after college. Her academic interests were varied, from ancient civilizations and romance languages to neuroscience and cell biology.

The private schools she considered cost $40,000 to $50,000 per year. With our relatively meager savings and what we could contribute out of our income, we still could cover only 1/2 to 2/3 of the projected cost of that education. That meant our daughter would graduate with around $70,000 in debt and aspirations to go to medical school where she would surely acquire more debt.

This scenario compared to an education at the state flagship university that would cost about half or one-third as much.

The state university also offered an honors program, with the opportunity to work closely with faculty on research projects. Her honors courses would provide some of the peer benefits and smaller-school experience to be found at the privates.

We sat down with our daughter and laid out the issues. For her, it was a no-brainer. She is now finishing her third year at the state flagship, working toward an honors diploma. She has participated in two research projects, one in the humanities and one in a technical area and has had the opportunity to present her research at two conferences. She is preparing to take the MCAT in a few weeks and this summer she will be an intern working on a research team on a NASA-funded project.

To be sure, she has had some bad experiences at this large school. There has been little love for the 400-person courses in chemistry and on the whole the few TAs she has had (mostly in math and sciences) have been ill-equipped to handle their positions.

Bottom line: she will graduate next year with zero debt and, on the whole, having had a great educational experience.

Perhaps bright, motivated students from rural America, like my daughter, are pursuing schools closer to home because they don't see the economic benefit of mortgaging their futures to attain an undergraduate academic pedigree.

22. honore - May 08, 2010 at 11:25 pm

lake mendota, don't be naive, (which I know is a UW-Madison acadmic option). Princeton is absolutely correct. I have worked at 2 Ivys and Big 10 schools where my duties included the one-to-one counseling with students and even more importantly, the pointless administrative exercise known as the "exit interview".

On numerous occasions, students from rural, economically-challenged or ethnic/racial minority backgrounds disclosed that they just "didn't fit in". And as difficult as that may be for you to accept, the overall college experience is a very a middle class one which has as a pre-requisite, strict prior membership in that very class for the previous 18 years.

These students typically do not come from nuclear familial settings where conversations about "majors", "internships", or "study abroad" ever occurred. The only exposure they might have had to "college" would have been via Hollywood toga films or girls gone wild videos on YouTube.

Their Freshman day to day existence is often very bleak and difficult on a personal level and needless to say, that has a very negative effect on them academically, physically and emotionally.

And while I do not support any person in that pre-college student's life discouraging him from having high aspirations which could include elite schools, I DO understand what these students will encounter on these campus.

Think for a moment what an NYU Freshman student from Appalachia who is the 1st person in his family to finish the eight grade, has to deal with while riding subways in Manhattan to get to mid-town art museums to comply with an assignment in...

"De-Constructionist Art In the Context of the Post-Feminist, Post-Stonewall Era As Seen Through The Eyes of a Clintonian Generation Vegan"

Chilling isn't it? Now enjoy your Oz experience in Madison where attending the opening of Trader Vic's newest French Goat Cheese Bar, (down the street from your luxury apartment) is about as challenged as students get

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