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High-Achieving Rural Students Less Likely to Select Top-Ranked Colleges

In another major study presented at the 2010 AERA meeting, Matthew A. Holsapple and Julie Posselt explore geographic differences in school choice. They find that students in rural areas rely on different factors than urban or suburban students when selecting a college or university, which has led to regional stratification across institutions of higher education.

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Geographic Disparities Persist at U.S. Colleges and Universities

Inequalities in college access have been widely studied in the U.S., particularly when it comes to race and socioeconomic status (SES). But, as Matthew A. Holsapple and Julie Posselt point out in their recent study of rural students, geographic stratification tends to be ignored even though it is as 'persistent and severe' as racial and economic disparities. When geography is explored, the focus tends to be on urban and inner-city students.

Holsapple and Posselt cite a previous study that found that rural students are less likely to have finished their degrees or even be enrolled in a postsecondary institution by age 30 than those in urban and suburban areas. Their research picks up the thread with those students who do attend college, exploring the roots of their school choices. Specifically, Holsapple and Posselt examine how likely high-achieving rural students are to enroll in one of the U.S. News and World Report's top 100 undergrad college and universities, and what factors affect their decision.

College Students

The researchers point out three major influences that geography can have on participation in American higher education:

  1. Geographic region across the U.S.
  2. Availability of schools within commuting distance
  3. 'Urbanicity,' or whether a student comes from a rural, urban or suburban background

However, they note that geographic disparities in college participation can also be connected to inequalities in race and SES. The paper refers to several studies that have found that residential segregation by race and income can lead to imbalances in the quality of K-12 education, which in turn leads to geographic stratification in college access. In order to get around these confounds, Holsapple and Posselt controlled for demographic variables such as socioeconomic status, race and gender.

They also addressed the issue of access versus choice. Although most researchers approach them as separate variables, the paper points out that access is a prerequisite of choice: A student's options are limited to those schools that are available to him or her. Because they are interested in the choices students make, Holsapple and Posselt also controlled for various factors based on the academic and financial requirements to be admitted to elite institutions, such as academic achievement (GPA, etc.) and need for financial aid.

Determining the variables that influence choice was harder due to the relative lack of literature on the subject. After surveying theoretical research on the roots of college choice, Holsapple and Posselt hypothesized that students who enroll in elite institutions may view academic reputation and graduate school placement rates as important. They also postulate that these students have a higher expectation of earning a graduate degree, which should be reflected in family expectations. Finally, they included students' interest in living away from home, since the top-ranked U.S. News schools are distributed unequally across the country.

Data for the current study came from the Educational Longitudinal Survey of 2002 (ELS:2002). The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) administered this survey to a nationally representative sample of 10th graders, then administered follow-up surveys two and four years later to track high school completion and transitions to work or college. The four year follow-up includes specific information about postsecondary enrollment, including which institutions students attended. Holsapple and Posselt matched this data to the U.S. News and World Report's 2004 rankings in order to determine whether or not a student had enrolled in one of the top 50 liberal arts colleges or top 50 national universities, as they were ranked at the time of the initial survey.

University Students

Analyzing the data, researchers found that socioeconomic status and grade point average were normally distributed across categories of urbanicity, although the mean honors-weighted GPA of students at top 100 institutions (3.74) was eight-tenths of a point higher than the overall mean (2.93).

In general, most 10th graders expected to earn a bachelor's degree and even a graduate degree. However, urbanicity did have an effect on expectations: rural students were significantly less likely to expect to earn their high school diplomas or a graduate degree. These expectations were largely borne out in the four year follow-up survey, which found that significantly fewer rural students had enrolled in college (66.75%) and their enrollment rate in top 100 schools (3.37%) was less than half of that of urban and suburban students.

This suggests that urbanicity can affect the probability that a student will enroll in an elite college or university. To further explore this question, Holsapple and Posselt compared enrollment in 2-year institutions versus enrollment in non-ranked 4-year institutions (for a baseline) with enrollment in non-ranked 4-year institutions versus enrollment in U.S. News top 100 ranked institutions. That found that, in fact, urbanicity is a strong predictor of whether or not a student will enroll in a top-ranked school.

When all demographic and other variables are held constant, rural students are 53.1% less likely to enroll in a top-100 college or university than suburban students. Urban and suburban students are equally likely to enroll in a top-100 institution as opposed to a non-ranked school, although urban students are much less likely than their suburban peers to enroll in a 2-year college versus a less selective 4-year institution. There is no significant difference in the odds that a rural student will enroll in a 2-year college versus a 4-year college.

A key point of Holsapple and Posselt's analysis is that this disparity persists even among groups who seem highly likely to attend elite institutions. A rural student whose GPA is in the 97.5th percentile and whose family is two standard deviations above the norm in socioeconomic status has only a 20% probability of attending a top ranked college or university. Compare that to a 50% probability among urban students in the same GPA and SES categories, and a 40% probability among their suburban peers, and it's clear that rural students are significantly underrepresented at elite colleges and universities.

High-Achieving Students

If GPA and family income aren't causing this disparity, then what is? Holsapple and Posselt examined factors of access and choice to try to understand why rural students aren't attending top-ranked postsecondary institutions. Looking at access variables, they found that urbanicity affects both which variables predict the odds of enrollment and the relative strength of those variables. GPA had a much more significant influence on rural students' enrollment in top-ranked universities than urban or suburban students. And among rural students, males were much more likely than female students to attend a top-100 institution versus a non-ranked 4-year institution, yet the gender difference is weak for suburban students and non-existent for urban students. Surprisingly, attending a public or private high school was not a significant factor for rural students or suburban students, although urban students at private high schools were much more likely to attend an elite institution.

The importance of financial aid also had a different effect on rural students than their urban or suburban peers. Rural students who indicated that the availability of financial aid was 'very important' were more likely to attend a 2-year college and an unranked 4-year institution; otherwise, it had no effect. By contrast, a response of either 'somewhat important' or 'very important' had a significant effect on the probability that urban or suburban students would attend either a 2-year college or a top-100 school versus a non-ranked institution. The researchers note that this suggests that financial concerns have a very different effect on rural students.

Choice factors were also different based on urbanicity. Expecting to earn a graduate degree was a significant factor for urban and suburban students, but not for their rural peers. However, rural students for whom graduate school placement rates were very important were significantly more likely to attend a top-100 school than rural students who did not list graduate school placement as a priority. For urban and suburban students, this factor was not a statistically significant predictor at all. Nevertheless, the fact that graduate school expectations and placement rates had any influence offers a new perspective on college choice literature that typically assumes that high school students are only focused on undergraduate education.

Holsapple and Posselt point out that the key take-away issue from their study is that rural students should be included in outreach efforts to increase college access. Although elite institutions aren't the be-all and end-all of quality education, they can have a positive impact on graduate school placement, career outlook and long-term economic health. Yet qualified rural students are consistently ending up at less selective colleges and universities. Although the current study can't explain these choices, the authors do urge researchers and policymakers to include rural students when considering how to increase nationwide college access.

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