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Students in rural counties are less likely to attend college, and those who do are less likely to choose a four-year, private, or highly selective institution, according to a recent report.

Andrew Koricich, an assistant professor of higher education at Texas Tech University analyzed federal higher education and longitudinal data to determine how living in a rural community influences postsecondary choices. Koricich’s study found that about 64 percent of rural students pursue postsecondary education, compared to nearly 70 percent of students who live in metro areas. Nationally, about 66 percent of graduating high school students enroll in a postsecondary institution.

Of those students in the study who attended college, 47 percent of rural students chose a two-year institution, compared to about 38 percent of students living in metro areas. Rural students included in the study were also less likely to attend a private school or highly selective four-year institution.

rural students in higher education
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Photo: Jeffrey Keeler) Credit: Jeffrey Keeler

Some four-year colleges have seen this play out in recent years. The News-Gazette, which covers East Central Illinois, recently reported that the University of Illinois has seen a sharp decline in rural students over the past 20 years. The article parses out several possible reasons. Some students may feel uncomfortable or intimidated transitioning from small communities to a large university in a big town. Others may shy away from the higher tuitions or opt for a community college if they are undecided on a career and don’t want to spend money at a more expensive school.

Last year, a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center broke down rural and urban college-going rates by income level and found that there are disparities even among rural communities. Students at low-income rural schools are less likely to attend college than their peers at high-income rural schools, and are also less likely to continue on to their second year of college.

Some higher education officials have suggested ways to improve completion rates, including increasing technology and Internet access for rural students to research more colleges, and strengthening relationships between high schools and colleges to help ease the transition.

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