A paradox is at work in rural America.
On the one hand, students in rural schools demonstrate high levels of academic achievement. A higher percentage of students in rural schools achieve proficiency in both math and reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) than urban or suburban students. And high schools in rural communities post among the highest graduation rates. On the other hand, graduates from rural high schools are less likely to pursue post-secondary education than their non-rural peers, and rural parts of the country have lower educational attainment levels overall.
With over 65 percent of jobs projected to require some type of post-secondary education in a few short years, ensuring that rural graduates access and complete post-secondary training is critical. So why aren’t rural students going on to college?
Certainly multiple factors contribute to any student’s decision about pursuing post-secondary education regardless of where they live—financial concerns and family factors among them. And these factors are all at play in rural communities. But given the systematic difference in achievement data and graduation rates among rural schools, is there also something systematic about the fall off in post-secondary pursuits among their graduates? And if so, what role can public policy play in addressing it?
In a new paper released by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), an effort by the JA and Kathryn Albertson Foundation to bring attention and apply rigorous new research efforts to rural education, we aim to address the first question by asking whether the level of rigor in high school academics differs between rural and non-rural high schools. Rigor in high school coursework is the strongest predictor of post-secondary success, eclipsing even external factors like income and other student background characteristics. And while data limitations prevent us from drawing firm conclusions, all the data we analyzed point in the same direction—that rural students may, in fact, experience less rigor in high school.
What our findings suggest is that rural students are potentially less well-prepared for post-secondary learning—which limits opportunities, decreases the likelihood of successful completion of degrees, and exacerbates other barriers like income limitations by increasing cost and time to degree.
Among the selected findings:
• In Virginia—one of about 10 states that offer more than one high school diploma option with varying core course requirements—graduates in rural districts opt for the less rigorous option at a higher rate.
• Data suggest that a lower percentage of students in rural districts across nearly every state enroll in Algebra II, more advanced math, and Advanced Placement courses compared with non-rural peers.
• Rural students in Idaho meet the college ready benchmarks on the ACT at lower rates than non-rural peers.
So what is to be done?
First, we need better data. Rural schools may face similar challenges as schools in other parts of the country; but often policy solutions crafted to work in urban settings are a poor fit for rural schools. To enable customized solutions, we need better information about the specific conditions in rural schools. States should track and publish data so that outcomes for rural schools can be analyzed as a group. And post-secondary indicators regarding college and workforce participation, which many states already link to K-12 data systems, should be made available at the district-level—resulting in more transparency and better analysis regarding differences in post-secondary outcomes for students in different communities, including rural ones.
Second, states should consider strengthening high school graduation requirements for all students. Currently coursework requirements for math and science, in particular, vary widely among states, and those requirements affect which courses students ultimately choose to take. Because a high school diploma has inherent economic value (high school graduates have substantially higher lifetime earnings potential than those without a diploma), the benefits of increased requirements must be weighed against the possibility of lower graduation rates. But if we are serious about high school graduation signifying true college and career readiness, we must make serious choices about what constitutes a high school diploma.
Third, states, districts, and schools must ensure that students and families receive good information about college entrance requirements, trade-offs for course choices, and the how-to’s of the college application and financing process early in their school lives. This is especially true in rural communities, where fewer parents have personal experience with college and families may have less expectation that students will go on to college after high school.
Finally, states need to invest in better post-secondary remediation options to bridge any gaps in preparation more efficiently in terms of time and cost. Traditional developmental education options in institutions of higher education place students in costly, non-credit bearing courses that increase the cost and the time to degree. What if instead schools identified and intervened with students who are off-track on college readiness benchmarks early, providing intensive, targeted programs linked directly to the standards post-secondary institutions use for placement? The aim would be to make intervention a shorter-term targeted engagement that occurs prior to entering college, moving away from costly semester-long remedial courses.
You’ll find more detail about our analysis, findings, and recommendations here, where you can also check out other research on a range of topics related to rural education.