Increasing Rural College Attendance

Updated November 4, 2022

There are many factors that contribute to the enrollment disparity between small-town students and their peers in the cities and suburbs, ranging from geographical is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Breaking Myths and Making College a Possibility for Small-Town Students

Graduates from rural high schools are among the most underrepresented demographics at American colleges. In fact, fewer rural teens go off to college than those in any other demographic group. There are many factors that contribute to the enrollment disparity between small-town students and their peers in the cities and suburbs, ranging from geographical isolation and income inequality to cultural traditions and political beliefs. But change is on the horizon. New technology, targeted initiatives, rural-centric organizations and a renewed focus from many colleges on boosting small-town enrollment are bridging the country-college gap.

Why Rural Students Are Less Likely to Go to College

Although rural students don't go to college as often as high school graduates in the larger cities, they're just as prepared academically. The National Center for Education Statistics shows rural students not only score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than students in cities, but small-town graduation rates are higher than the national average. It's clear that ability and drive are not responsible for the rural higher education drought, but there are some common themes to why rural students are less likely to go to college. Find more information on some of the solutions to break each trend below.


Many rural students think high school is all the education they need to get a local job and start working right away. A lot of that has to do with community history. Rural students often hail from places that historically offered good jobs and career paths to workers in industries that do not require college degrees, like mining, timber, manufacturing and farming. Today, however, secure, high-paying positions in these sectors are harder and harder to come by.


According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture, college is one of the most potent tools rural Americans have in the push to revitalize their communities and improve job prospects for their youth. When small-town kids leave home, go to college, graduate, then return, they are uniquely positioned to stem population loss, boost the economy and improve the quality of life in the communities that they call home.


Most rural students are white, and a survey from the Pew Research Center found that rural whites are far more likely to feel that their children will grow up with a lower standard of living than they did. They often attribute this to an erosion of their culture, communities and lifestyles, not a lack of access to college.


The parents of small-town kids might think that times are changing for the worse, but college might be the key to reversing that trend and bringing optimism back to Middle America. According to a study from the USDA Economic Research Service, the economic prosperity of rural communities is directly tied to the number of kids they send to college. Educational attainment is clearly linked to healthier rural job markets and higher median wages in remote, underserved communities. Unemployment and low wages are most crippling in rural areas with lower rates of education.


Many small-town Americans don't believe that college is an equalizer. For example, the Pew study showed that rural whites, particularly men, are far less likely to believe that college teaches the skills needed to succeed in the modern world. Also, far fewer rural teens grew up in households with a college-educated parent than kids in the suburbs and cities.


Colleges are now making great strides in locating, incentivizing and recruiting qualified rural students who might have otherwise not considered higher education. These efforts are helping rural students know they are welcome, wanted and needed on college campuse


Rural high schools tend to offer fewer advanced placement courses, extracurriculars, enrollment pipelines and other programs that colleges often value.


Many colleges, non-profits and governmental agencies have launched programs— many of them free—to give underserved rural students access to high-level preparatory classes and programs. Upward Bend Rural at Coastal Bend College, Access to Opportunity from CollegeBoard and REL Rural are just a few.


According to a report released by EdPolicyWorks and the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, rural students cite difficult economic realities as one of the top four reasons they don't plan to attend college. They also tend to be more skeptical that a college degree will pay off in terms of higher salaries and better quality of life.


Education is one of the most powerful tools in breaking the pattern of cyclical poverty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows each level of education attained leads to higher income and lower rates of unemployment. In fact, a bachelor's degree boosts median weekly earnings to $1,173—well above the national median of $907—and lowers the unemployment rate to 2.5 percent, which is miniscule compared to the already-low national average of 3.6 percent.

Programs Encouraging Rural Students to Attend College

Organizations of all stripes have recognized the untapped resource of bright, young, motivated rural students—and many are working hard to bring small-town academic stars to college. Here's a look at some of the programs designed to mitigate those obstacles.

Penn State Center on Rural Education and Communities

Penn State Center on Rural Education and Communities

CREC is a massive program that works to develop global research and outreach alliances across all disciplines to benefit rural communities and increase their participation in higher education. CREC also serves as a central database for information on issues affecting rural students and provides a link from major colleges to remote, rural schools.

Rural Futures Institute

Rural Futures Institute

The University of Nebraska's RFI program harnesses the school's own research-based expertise and talent, as well as that of its vast network of partners, to work "collaboratively with educational, business, community, non-profit, government and foundation partners to empower rural communities and their leaders."

Project Lead the Way

Project Lead the Way

PLTW works with schools, teachers, students and communities to bring skill-based education to K-12 students designed to enhance their curriculum and prepare them for higher education and the demands of competing in a global economy. 20 percent of the schools PLTW serves are in rural areas.

Educate Texas

Educate Texas

Educate Texas focuses on four areas of concentration: college and career readiness, higher education, effective teaching and collective impact. The program's mission is to prepare students from Texas and the region for a projected shortfall in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related occupations, as well as for work in the region's vast energy economy. The mission incorporates a range of programs that empower students from kindergarten through high school and beyond.

The Best Types of Schools for Small Town Students

Rural students considering higher education might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of colleges available to them. Different schools can offer wildly different college experiences. Some schools are like small cities, with tens of thousands of students, stadiums and on-campus nightclubs. Others are tiny, local institutions with a few hundred students. In between are technical colleges, Christian universities or schools that support a particular demographic, racial or ethnic group.

Is there a "right" school for students with rural backgrounds?

"In two words: not necessarily," said Jason Patel, founder of Transizion, a college prep company that is focused on closing the opportunity divide in America. "Why? Every student has different preferences for what he wants in a college. You want to take several elements into consideration. These elements include school size, school location, professor-to-student ratio, weather, dorm life, school spirit, sports, and a number of other factors."

Different School Experiences Categorized

"Essentially, every student is different," Patel said. "Some students from these areas might want a school that fits the profile of their home. Other students might want to go to a big city and experience the lifestyle in a bustling metro." Here are some different college demographics and experiences categorized to help rural students considering what kind of school might be most appealing.

School Size

  • Large Schools

    The largest colleges and universities in the U.S. can have more than 60,000 students enrolled at any given time, but the U.S. Department of Education classifies “large schools” as those with over 15,000 students. This means plenty of opportunity to meet new people and enroll in a diverse variety of classes and campus clubs or activities. Large state universities also tend to be a more affordable option for in-state students.

  • Mid-Size Schools

    Classified as schools with between 2,000 and 15,000 students, the U.S. Department of Education lists more than 1,300 colleges and universities in this category. Mid-size colleges provide a middle ground between the sea of students you'll find at a large college and the more intimate familiarity of a small school.

  • Small Schools

    Colleges with under 2,000 students are considered small schools. Small schools make up the majority of higher education options in the U.S. and generally boast lower student-teacher ratios, a tightly-knit student community and less competition for classes and club participation.

School Location

  • Local

    Depending where you live, a local school could mean the county community college or a small state school in the next town over. Geography plays a big part in college decision, and rural students who stay local for school say they often save money by living at home and have a leg up on classmates when it comes to local job prospects after graduation.

  • Across the State

    Rural who want to experience something new might find the perfect blend of cost-effectiveness and distance from home, without being too far away to visit at a school across the state. UCLA's Higher Educational Research Institute shows a majority of college students attend school 50 miles or less from home. If you live in a large enough state, there may be many opportunities to pay in-state tuition and venture more than 50 miles from your hometown.

  • Out-of-State

    There are many reasons to explore schools out-of-state, from simply wanting to be out on your own to eyeing a prestigious academic program or high-level athletic experience outside your home state. Keep in mind, out-of-state students typically pay higher tuition rates unless your state is a member of a reciprocity or good neighbor tuition discount program.

Additional Factors to Consider

  • Geography and Climate

    Students from rural areas may long to attend college in the city, or use college to experience a different climate than they're used to.

  • Student-Teacher Ratio

    If your high school experience included small class sizes and the opportunity to get individualized help from your teachers, a college's student-teacher ratio may be an important selling point.

  • Living Arrangements

    Some campuses require all freshmen to live on-campus their first year at college. Decide if dorm life is an adventure you want to experience, or if staying local and living at home is a better arrangement for you.

  • Campus Life & Activities

    Does the college you're considering have interesting student groups, clubs, Greek Life, and athletics? Consider which activities will be important to enhancing your academic experience.

The most important thing, according to Patel, is to keep your mind open during research and avoid preconceived notions about people, places and schools. "You need you consider each student 's differences before considering schools," Patel says. "Don't assume things. " The U.S. Department of State also helps answer other frequently asked questions about college choices on the Education USA page.

Online College for Rural Students

The emergence of online education has made college more accessible to the current generation of rural students than it has been for any previous generation in history. This is even more true for highly remote rural students in communities that are isolated, disconnected or simply too far away from traditional institutions where on-campus higher education is realistic.

Online Learning Explained

Sometimes called distance education, eLearning or web-based study, online
 uses technology to deliver college coursework to students without
requiring them to physically show up at a classroom. Some programs require students to occasionally visit campus for tests or labs, and others are delivered in a hybrid format that combines face-to-face study with a remotely delivered curriculum. But by and large, distance learners can achieve the college dream from the comfort of their own homes.

Instead of seeking to bring rural students to college campuses, online learning can bring the college to the small town academic.

  • The coursework is usually the same, and sometimes more challenging than it would be with traditional college study

  • Classes are generally taught by the same instructors that teach on campus

  • Graduates receive the same exact diploma as their on-campus counterparts

  • Classes and programs enjoy the same level of accreditation as on-campus courses and degrees

  • Benefits are the same for distance learners just like their on-campus counterparts, including advising, counseling, help with graduation, IT assistance, library services, help with substance abuse or depression, textbook discounts, career counseling, etc.

  • Online learning is often less expensive than traditional college programs and degrees

According to the University of Washington, distance learning can also mitigate traditional barriers for rural students, like:

  • Transportation issues
  • Anxiety about culture shock
  • Reluctance to leave obligations at home

Web-based education can even help rural students prepare for college long before they graduate high school by exposing them to advanced placement (AP) and other high-level coursework that might not be available at their high school.

Students with College Cost Concerns

Paying for college is one of the top worries for students today, no matter if they are from the city or rural areas. For some rural students, cost concerns can be incredibly overwhelming. The good news is, there are plenty of programs designed specifically to ease the financial burden on small-town students. Here are a few examples:

Foundation for Rural Service

Foundation for Rural Service

FRS gives out more than $100,000 every year in the form of scholarships to exceptional rural students, which they can use to offset expenses for their first year of college or trade school. The program also offers several "named " scholarships in varying dollar amounts.

America's Farmers

America's Farmers

The America's Farmers Grow Rural Education program, funded by the Monsanto corporation, delivers grants to rural schools and students, particularly those focused on STEM education. The same company also funds the America's Farmers Grow Ag Leaders program.

Iowa Pork Producers Association

Iowa Pork Producers Association

IPPA offers rural students a range of scholarships, grants, awards and internships across a variety of industries, fields of study and interests.

The Hagan Scholarship

The Hagan Scholarship

Students from counties with fewer than 50,000 residents can apply for the Hagan Scholarship, which is a need-based scholarship for excellent students from small towns and schools.

Additionally, many colleges and universities offer their own financial awards to rural students. Check with your state's public universities, which are most likely to offer assistance and rural outreach.

Transitioning to College from a Small Town

One of the biggest things holding rural students back from enrolling in college is the fear of culture shock-and that fear doesn't exist only in their imagination. It's often tough to transition from attending a high school with perhaps a few dozen students in the entire school to a campus with tens of thousands of people. Small-town students can arm themselves with the skills and resources needed to ease the transition. Here are four ways to make it easy to get adjusted to college life.


  • Make a list: what do you think you'd like from a college experience?

    "There are a number of ways to deal with the culture shock," Patel said. "One way is for a student to write down a list of the things they want out of their college experience. While this list is bound to change, it's good to have it before they embark on this new journey. After writing their goals and expectations down, they'll have a roadmap that will help them visualize goals and make decisions accordingly."

  • Take advantage of on-campus transition services & activities

    Rural students will find a wealth of resources at their school to help them get acclimated, including welcome weeks full of events for new students. Some schools even have a dedicated Office of Student Transitions to help with the adjustment.

    Another one of the best ways to get used to the change is to join student groups. Patel recommends joining two or three. "These groups will give him the comfort of being around like-minded people," Patel said. "It will also supply them with a network from which they can choose his friends. Socializing is an important part of the human experience, so having friends is a good way to alleviate that feeling of loneliness."

  • Start strong in the classroom from the beginning

    "You can have a ton of friends and enjoy the social life in college, but starting your college experience with bad grades will weigh on your transcript and junior and senior years as time moves on," Patel said. "Starting out strong gives you the chance to enjoy the latter years of college. It also provides leeway to explore new things as you become an adult."

  • Consider getting a job on campus or in the surrounding community

    "Not only are you making your own money, which is a tremendously empowering feeling, but traveling to and from work gives you a reason to explore the college town or city," Patel said. "Knowing more about the beauty and landscape around you mitigates that feeling of being out of place."


Plenty of students have been before where you are now, and they've picked up some helpful tips and tricks along the way. Here are a few standout pieces of advice from fellow students:

  • Seek out and make contact with familiar faces

    No matter how big or small your school happens to be, your schedule, coursework, athletic pursuits or social clubs will force you to cross paths with some of the same people over and over. When you encounter someone again and again, say "hello" and take the time to talk about what you have in common.

    “Everyone is very desperate early on because they're in a new and uncomfortable environment to find a friendly face, make sure you're one of them!”

  • Find a place or activity you like & spend some time there

    Open up to the other people who also hang around. They are likely to share your interests. That place could be anything from a game room or a study area to the library or computer lab.

    “My freshman year I had a Gamecube and I almost always left my door open whenever I was in my dorm. [People] would just hang out in my dorm room to watch me play it and [chat] with me.”

  • Don't underestimate the power of homesickness

    This is a very real phenomenon that isn't unique only to freshmen. One of the biggest remedies is to keep busy making friends and going to activities, and instead of taking a trip, a simple call home or visit from hometown friends or family can help. Schedule periodic home visits to remember where you came from, why you left and what you're hoping to accomplish.

    “If you go to college within driving distance of home, don't go home for a while. Resist the urge. Weekends are a great time to cement friendships with people. You can't do that if you're at home.”

  • Focus on staying healthy or getting healthier

    The Freshman 15 is a real thing, but so are college mental health issues. Freshmen often gain weight because they are no longer on a regimented schedule and diet and may even overeat or generally let themselves go. Take advantage of your school's health, wellness and counseling centers and programs so you can adopt or maintain a healthy lifestyle and fully flourish as a student and a person.

    “When I graduated high school and left for college, I had absolutely no knowledge of mental health issues and symptoms of illness. If I did, I would have been able to see my problems and get help before they became major issues.”

Extra Resources and College Advice

A feeling of isolation, either real or imagined, has held countless small-town students from pursuing higher education. However, even the students from America's smallest towns, reservations or outposts are not alone. Here's a look at some helpful general resources that can help make college a reality and a success.

The National Center for Research on Rural Education (R2Ed): Funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, R2Ed works to address and mitigate the unique challenges faced by rural students pursuing academic careers after high school.

Rural 360°: Subscribe to this newsletter for insight into the programs targeting the rural community, partnerships and outreach programs delivered by R2Ed.

The National Rural Education Association: Billed as "the voice of rural schools and communities," NREA offers a wealth of resources and tools for students just like you. Visit for information about rural education laboratories, links to national organizations committed to rural education and connections to other useful and relevant groups and programs.

Rural Community College Alliance: America's 600 rural community and tribal colleges are the backbone of Middle America's higher education network and the gateway to higher education for so many rural students. RCCA unites the entire network under one roof.

The Rural Broadband Association: A lack of reliable high-speed internet has plagued many rural students — and this can be an especially harsh barrier to entry for those interested in distance learning. If your home, school or town is bogged down by slow or nonexistent Internet connectivity, RBA is packed with resources that might be able to help you bridge the IT divide.

"You might feel out of place, but every student there is or was new to campus," Patel said. "Everyone has self-doubts and is nervous about fitting in. Just because you're from somewhere new doesn't mean you don't belong. In fact, your ability to embrace a new environment demonstrates why you deserve to be there. So, be open-minded, say 'yes' to new experiences, make friends, stay close to those who help you and keep on moving forward."

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