Postsecondary Education Expectations and Attainment of Rural and Nonrural Students

Prior research shows that rural students’ education expectations and aspirations, as well as their postsecondary enrollment and persistence rates, tend to be lower than those of nonrural students. However, much of that prior research may not apply to today’s students because it uses old data or focuses on individual states or purposive samples. Meanwhile, recent policy initiatives at both the national and state levels have emphasized increasing college-go­ing rates. Moreover, because of the rise in online learning options, high school students have more opportunities to take college preparatory courses and pursue college education without leaving home.

This study examined rural–nonrural differences in postsecondary educational expectations, and the attainment of those expectations, for grade 10 students attending rural and nonrural high schools in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest region. The study also considered how these differences compare with rural–nonrural differences in the rest of the nation. For grade 10 students who did not anticipate attaining more than a high school education, the study also examined rural and nonrural students’ reasons for those expectations. 

Policymakers and other stakeholders in Midwestern states and the rest of the nation can use the results of this study to inform efforts to improve the educational attainment of rural students.

Key Findings

  • Rural students in the Midwest had lower educational expectations than their nonrural peers, yet similar levels of educational attainment after taking into account student, family, teacher, and school characteristics.
  • Importantly, participation in rigorous coursework, parent aspirations, and teacher expectations were more predictive of educational expectations and attainment than whether students grew up in rural areas in grade 10 in 2002.
  • For grade 10 students who did not expect to go to college, both rural and nonrural students perceived financial barriers as the primary reason.
  • Rural and nonrural students had similar levels of postsecondary educational attainment by 2012, eight years after expected high school graduation.
  • Almost two-thirds of both rural and nonrural students had fallen short of their grade 10 education expectations by 2012.