In February I attended two virtual conferences—From Small Town to Campus (February 10-11) and Roadmaps to Rural Student Success (February 23-24)—both centering on the experiences of rural students pursuing and obtaining higher education degrees. A bevy of speakers and attendees shared personal experiences about growing up rural or working with students from rural backgrounds. As these talented individuals spoke on the advantages and challenges associated with rural student success, a number of themes emerged, not only across sessions, but across the two conferences. Here I will share some of these themes:

  • The advantages and challenges of rural students in higher education
  • Rural identity and intersectionality
  • The difficulty in defining “rural”
  • Pathways after graduation

Advantages and challenges of rural students in higher education

Attendees at both conferences highlighted the importance of language and framing when discussing rural students. Too often, deficit language is used to describe rural populations and their pursuit of higher education, rather than the advantages they possess. In tension with the widespread understanding that deficit language helps to reinforce stereotypes that rural students are somehow less intelligent or less able is simultaneous acknowledgement that illustrating the challenges rural students face compared to suburban and urban peers is necessary in order to advocate for increased support. To strike a balance, I will share the common advantages as well as challenges cited at the conference that shape rural student experience regarding higher education.

One of the key advantages rural students possess is diversity of experience and diversity of background compared to the standard higher ed ecosystem. This creates advantages in a few ways. One is that college applications from rural students, particularly the essays, often stand out among the crowd as unique and interesting because the experiences and stories shared are so different from those of suburban and urban students. Another is that rural students often possess knowledge of agriculture and the environment that non-rural peers may not; this means that they have information to share as well as to learn on campus. Attendees and speakers at both conferences also cited strong work ethic and resilience as two common traits found among rural students, in many cases developed from years of working on family farms or businesses, or thriving despite poverty or limited resources.

Just as rural students bring a wealth of assets, so too do they experience disproportionate challenges in several areas. Rural students are less likely to go to college to begin with and less likely to graduate than non-rural peers; this is due to a myriad of factors. Not only are rural students more likely to have grown up in poverty or to be first generation college students, they also often attend high schools that have fewer resources than suburban and urban high schools. Often, rural high schoolers do not have access to as many courses, particularly in math and science. For example, Corinne Smith, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Yale, shared during her keynote address at the From Small Town to Campus conference that in 2015, only 62 percent of rural high school seniors had access to an AP STEM course compared to 93 percent of seniors in suburban and 88 percent of seniors in urban high schools. Many rural students at the conference voiced that they arrived on campus feeling academically behind before classes were even truly underway.

Since most higher education institutions are located in suburban or urban spaces, physical proximity is also a significant factor. It is time and resource intensive for college recruiters to travel to rural high schools and speak to only a few students compared with the number of students at larger high schools. In reverse, for rural students, traveling to a campus to visit or attending orientation is a significant time and financial commitment that may require staying overnight or traveling many hours. Comparatively, suburban or urban students might be able to attend an event and go home.

Once on campus, rural students experience culture shock that takes many forms; it could look like having difficulty falling asleep at night because of noise or street lights, or being unsure of how to navigate a bus or train station. Several rural attendees shared that they contend with their rural social network being far removed from their university, meaning both that they need to create a network from the ground up once on campus as well as that they lack people in their network that can help guide them in the higher ed environment. On top of this is the fact that many rural students encounter stereotypes of rural life from peers and even from people in positions of power, such as employers and faculty, once on campus. These stereotypes are usually centered on being less intelligent, a rube, a “redneck,” or something similar. A research study conducted by Dr. Ty C. McNamee, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Mississippi, on rural students from poor and working-class backgrounds includes findings of negative reactions and stereotyping from peers in line with examples shared at the conference.

Rural identity and intersectionality

Identity and intersectionality was one of the most discussed themes across both conferences. Interlaced identifiers such as socioeconomic status, race, sexuality, and first generation status create unique experiences of rural life. While rural students share many commonalities in terms of assets and challenges, differences in rural experience based on other facets of identity are crucial to recognize. For example, rural LGBTQ students and rural students of color may have vastly different experiences of rural life than their heterosexual or White peers. These identities are complicated when attending a higher education institution in a more populated area—for some it offers the opportunity to find community in ways they hadn’t previously, and for others it creates a tension of feeling like they do not fully belong to either space.

Socioeconomic status was one of the most common identifiers discussed during the two conferences, reflecting that rural students are more likely to be low-income than their non-rural peers. Many attendees shared experiences of culture shock upon coming to campus and seeing their own financial background juxtaposed against the immense wealth and access to opportunities that high-income peers experienced. Even rural students who considered themselves to be middle or even upper-class in their hometown found the experience jarring, finding themselves comparatively low-income once on campus. Wealth meant not only family vacations abroad and paying for school and books without undue stress, but also meant access to tutors, internships, employment opportunities, and high-profile references.

Difficulty in defining “rural”

Perhaps surprisingly, a theme that came up frequently was the difficulty of defining “rural.” Conference attendees shared that even the US government does not have an agreed upon definition of rural. For some entities, rural is defined by the number of people in a geographical area, for others, it is about the distance from suburban or urban centers. For example, the US Census Bureau, rather than defining rural, defines what it is not: “The Census Bureau defines rural as any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area.” It defines “urban” in two ways–urban areas have a population of 50,000 or more and urban clusters have a population of between 2,500 and 50,000 inhabitants. Areas with fewer than 2,500 people can be assumed to be rural by this definition.

The National Center for Education Statistics, though it uses US Census Bureau standards, categorizes rural into three categories: fringe, distant, and remote, with fringe being a “less than or equal to 5 miles from an urbanized area, as well as rural territory that is less than or equal to 2.5 miles from an urban cluster,” remote being “more than 25 miles from an urbanized area and also more than 10 miles from an urban cluster,” and distant being somewhere in between the two. The Office of Management and Budget uses the terms “Metropolitan, Micropolitan, or Neither” with “a Metro area contain[ing] a core urban area of 50,000 or more population, and a Micro area contain[ing] an urban core of at least 10,000” and micropolitan counties as well as counties that are neither metro nor micro are both considered rural. Still further, the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service uses nonmetropolitan counties as the basis for research on rural data. “Nonmetro counties…include some combination of: 1. Open countryside, 2. Rural towns (places with fewer than 2,500 people), and 3. Urban areas with populations ranging from 2,500 to 49,999 that are not part of larger labor market areas.”

These examples only scratch the surface of ways to define rural. One keynote speaker at Roadmaps to Rural Student Success said that there are dozens of definitions of “rural” within the US government alone. This has huge implications for higher education, as reaching a population that is difficult to define not only adds barriers to recruitment, but in tracking and serving these students during their college career as well. Attendees at both conferences suggested that “rural” as applied to higher education students is most effectively used as a self-identifier.

Pathways after graduation

Sometimes referred to as rural brain drain (ubiquitously acknowledged as an imperfect term), many rural students do not return to where they grew up after earning a college degree. This is a complex conversation and has implications for rural graduates themselves, rural high school students, and the rural community. For many rural graduates, leaving happens accidentally, or without express intent. Many rural students intend to return home only to find that it’s not practical for them to do so. Many rural areas do not have available jobs or infrastructure to support the careers that rural graduates are pursuing after obtaining a degree. Instead, rural graduates find themselves more often accepting positions in suburban and urban areas. And while many intend to return but find they cannot for career or income reasons, many others want to live in more populated areas due simply to personal preference. During both conferences, some rural graduates shared that they feel pulled between wanting to give back to their communities and wanting to pursue their own path in a different environment.

For rural high schoolers, witnessing a pattern of seeing others leave and not return dissuades some students from pursuing higher education to begin with. And, with fewer individuals with college degrees in the community, high school students have fewer or less visible models of people like themselves pursuing post-secondary degrees. Some speakers and attendees mentioned skepticism of the value of higher education in rural communities, and without degree-holders returning to add nuance to this narrative, it may be less likely to change. For rural communities at large, graduates failing to return means on a practical level that communities have fewer individuals with degrees in the workforce. And on another level, there is often an implication or depiction that people who chose to stay in the rural community are not as successful somehow. Rural places are often depicted as places to leave and there is a stereotype that people who stay do so because of limited options rather than by choice.


In addition to the themes that arose through the Small Towns to Campus conference and the Roadmaps to Rural Student Success unConference, a number of recommendations were made by speakers and attendees on how institutions can better reach and support rural students. These included:

  • offering programming to go over the basics of what work and education opportunities exist and where to find them
  • establishing peer-mentor programs among rural students
  • encouraging rural students to establish a rural student group on campus
  • collaborating with K-12 schools and local businesses to develop pipelines and support workforce development strategies
  • creating opportunities for rural high school students to earn college credit towards career credentials
  • conducting in-person recruitment and, where possible, sending recruiters to rural high schools who themselves have a rural identity since seeing someone from a similar background in higher education is a powerful way to make college feel more accessible.

Both conferences convened folks with deep ties to rural life and the transition into higher education and beyond. At Ithaka S+R we are monitoring this area closely. We believe there is an opportunity for higher education to be more attuned to rural learners and the challenges they face. We look forward to developing research that can assist post secondary institutions to develop awareness and services to support these students so that they can not only access, but flourish within higher education.