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.