WASHINGTON (March 27, 2020)—There is increased awareness of a growing divide between urban and rural communities in the United States; one that has been prompted by an array of cultural, economic and demographic factors. Differences in educational outcomes are part of this story.

Accordingly, a new report from R Street’s program on Civil Society, Education and Work investigates how educational attainment differs between rural, suburban and urban communities, and among different types of rural areas.

The report argues that much attention is paid to urban America and its schools—and for good reason. Cities are home to millions of students, concentrated poverty and struggling schools. But fully 60 percent of U.S. counties are mostly or completely rural, and they are home to 14 percent of the nation’s population. Nearly 1 in 3 K-12 schools are in rural America, as well as 1 in 5 students.

Yet, while rural America does face many challenges, there is also reason for encouragement. Although there are fewer rural adults with college degrees and rural students enroll in fewer in AP courses, rural students in 3 of the 4 states studied appear to matriculate to college at similar rates as their peers from cities, suburbs and towns. In addition, in those states, students from rural high schools appear to have similar persistence rates and attainment of degrees. One significant finding is that, in most of the states studied, associate’s degree attainment appears to be unaffected by how rural an area is, but as rurality increases, the percentage of adults with four-year degrees falls.

The report suggests that because of strong community cohesion and trust in their long-standing local institutions, rural residents may be skeptical of efforts to fundamentally reform foundational elements of their social, occupational and educational fabric. And because the backstories and defining characteristics of different rural communities can be so different, any rural engagement effort should be mindful of the particular histories of distinct communities.

The report concludes that “the diversity of rural communities across the country demands a diverse array of solutions to meet the particular needs of each. A one-size-fits-all approach would not be appropriate or possible for rural counties, that in spite of their many similarities and shared struggles, are also distinct in key ways.”

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