Mar 7, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Approximately 59 percent of rural high school students go on to attend college the fall after graduation. Compare this to 62 percent and 67 percent for urban and suburban students, respectively. Furthermore, of the 42 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds who are enrolled in higher education institutions, just 29 percent are from rural areas. The takeaway, according to The Atlantic, which recently reported on the issue? “When it comes to college enrollment, students in Middle America -- many of them white -- face an uphill battle against economic and cultural deterrents.”

Why does this disparity matter so much, and what can be done to correct it? Here’s a closer look.

The Higher Ed Advantage

College degrees matter for a myriad of reasons. For starters, there’s average earning levels and unemployment rates. Not only are these statistics more positive for college graduates, but the advantages grow exponentially over future generations.

According to the Brookings Institute, students born to parents with higher levels of educational attainment are also more likely to reach higher levels of educational attainment themselves. “The wide gaps in college completion rates by family income background is a stark reminder of the deep inequalities in America’s post-secondary education system,” concludes Brookings.

“The Last Acceptable Prejudice”

The often overlooked reality is that a rural upbringing may have similar bearing to income on college attainment. Because despite impressive standardized test scores and high graduation rates, even the highest-income rural students are opting out of college straight from high school.

Experts largely attribute this to attitudes about what it takes to make a decent living in areas where farming, mining and timber harvesting have historically been booming industries. “You could go to ag[griculture] school, but you didn’t have to. You could get those jobs, so why should you go to college,” Charles Fluharty, the president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa, told The Atlantic. But what happens when those industries stagnate? A resulting malaise that affects both parents and kids alike.

Meanwhile, Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, told The Atlantic, “Because we don’t have a diverse set of vocations kids can look at or try on or have an example of someone in their community that they aspire to be like, they’re kind of pushed into a position of, ‘I have a choice of becoming a coal miner or working in retail or healthcare.’ They can see a coal miner or a cashier, but they rarely if anywhere except on television encounter lawyers or doctors or astrophysicists.” This is further compounded by the fact that rural students are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to other academic and nonacademic factors, including limited opportunities for STEM studies,  lack of access to internet and elearning initiatives, and other barriers to college and career readiness.

Not only that, but rural students who do go to college are plagued by high dropout rates due to factors including lack of support systems, cost, culture shock, and even disdain from other students -- a phenomenon which leads Fluharty to proclaim the stereotyping of rural people as “the last acceptable prejudice in America.”

Why It Matters

There are many reasons it’s important to bridge the college enrollment and attainment gap between rural students and others. Of course, there’s the matter of equality: Students from these regions deserve the same benefits -- both academic and otherwise -- gained by their college-going peers.

And then there are the contributions they stand to make within their own communities as economies shift from historical industries to new ones -- such as healthcare, energy, and IT -- which require workers with higher education degrees. John Hill, president of the National Rural Education Association (NREA), told U.S. News & World Report of the imperative, “In terms of rural economic development, it’s really important for communities to identify the talent of the people that live in rural communities," Hill says. "It's critical as a part of rural economic development to take a hard look at the skills and talents and try to leverage those.”

But reversing the trend and bringing more rural students to universities also has a more immediate impact on college campuses themselves. Because while we often talk about the importance of diversity from an ethnic perspective, it’s also important from a geographical one. Proposes The New York Times, “To college administrators, rural students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, have become the new underrepresented minority. In their aim to shape leaders and provide access to the disadvantaged, higher education experts have been recognizing that these students bring valuable experiences and viewpoints to campuses that don’t typically attract agriculture majors.”

Turning the Tide

The good news? As stakeholders increasingly acknowledge the problem, more programs are emerging aimed at correcting the imbalance, including everything from initiatives aimed at increasing internet access and more proactive college advising at rural schools to scholarships earmarked for students from small towns.

Also worth noting? The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the US. In India, for example, where rural students are up against a breadth and depth of challenges, an organization called Bharat Calling has stepped up to support rural students by connecting them with elite universities. Said founder Sandeep Mehto, “When we started our research, we went to explore the rural higher education sector. We were faced with the same realities that I have seen in my life, such as a dropout rate of 90 percent and different socio-economic prejudices. It cleared the picture in my mind that getting into higher education depends on the social, cultural and economic capital a person gets, and not just how intelligent or eager a person is to learn.”

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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