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Strategies to Increase Rural Students' Enrollment in College — May 2020


Could you provide research on strategies to increase the enrollment of rural students in college?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on the strategies colleges and universities use to increase the enrollment of rural students. Also included is a section on rural students’ perceptions about higher education, which may be helpful for colleges in their efforts to increase the enrollment of rural students. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

I. Strategies to increase rural students’ enrollment in college

Burke, M. R., Davis, E., & Stephan, J. (2015). College enrollment patterns for rural Indiana high school graduates (REL 2015–083). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. Full text available from

From the abstract: “This study examined (1) average distances traveled to attend college, (2) presumptive college eligibility, (3) differences between two-year and four-year college enrollment, (4) differences in enrollment related to differences in colleges’ selectivity, and (5) degree of ‘undermatching’ (i.e., enrolling in a college less selective than one’s presumptive eligibility suggested) for rural and nonrural graduates among Indiana’s 2010 high school graduates. ‘Presumptive eligibility’ refers to the highest level of college selectivity for which a student is presumed eligible for admission, as determined by academic qualifications. The researchers obtained student-level, school-level, and university-related data from Indiana’s state longitudinal data system on the 64,534 students who graduated from high school in 2010. Of the original sample, 30,624 graduates entered a public two-year or four-year college in the fall immediately after high school graduation. Data were analyzed using Chi-square tests, GIS analysis, and hierarchical generalized linear models. Rural and nonrural graduates enrolled in college at similar rates, but rural graduates enrolled more frequently in two-year colleges than nonrural graduates. About one third of rural graduates enrolled in colleges that were less selective than colleges for which they were presumptively eligible. Rural graduates travel farther to attend both two-year and less selective four-year colleges than nonrural graduates. More information is needed about how students learn about their college options, what support structures are in place in order to assist students in enrolling in college, and how these processes and supports differ between rural and nonrural schools.”

Howley, C., Johnson, J., Passa, A., & Uekawa, K. (2014). College enrollment and persistence in rural Pennsylvania schools (REL 2015–053). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to examine the college enrollment and persistence rates of rural high schools in Pennsylvania; the types of postsecondary institutions in which students from such schools enroll; and the student, school, and college characteristics associated with enrollment and persistence outcomes. The study used extant data from the National Student Clearinghouse, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. In phase I, descriptive statistics were conducted to compare rural and non-rural immediate and delayed college-going rates, persistence rates, and types of postsecondary enrollment. In phase II, variations among Pennsylvania rural schools with higher and lower college-going rates were examined by grouping schools into quartiles based on college enrollment rates, then comparing the characteristics of the different quartiles. In phase III, multivariate logistic regression analyses were conducted to examine the individual and combined influence of student-, school-, and college-level variables on college enrollment and persistence rates. Results indicate that rural high schools have higher rates of enrollment than city schools, but lower rates than suburban and town schools; rural schools located in closer proximity to urban areas have better postsecondary outcomes than more remote rural schools; rural schools with higher rates of economically disadvantaged students tend to have lower enrollment and persistence rates; and, regardless of locale, Pennsylvania high schools send the large majority of their students to public 4-year colleges and in-state colleges. Results suggest that the lower enrollment and persistence rates are associated with factors identified in the literature as key influences, particularly poverty. Educators and policymakers should focus attention on economically disadvantaged rural students to improve college enrollment and persistence.”

Pierson, A., Hodara, M., & Luke, J. (2017). Earning college credits in high school: Options, participation, and outcomes for Oregon students (REL 2017-216). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Oregon’s postsecondary attainment goal for 2025, adopted in 2011, calls for 40 percent of Oregon adults to have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent to have an associate’s degree or postsecondary certificate, and the remaining 20 percent to have a high school diploma or equivalent (S. 253, Or. 2011). As in other states a central strategy for increasing postsecondary attainment in Oregon is to promote accelerated college credit options—such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual credits, and dual enrollment courses—that enable high school students to earn college credit. Oregon has invested heavily in the accelerated college credit strategy, with particular attention to student groups that have historically not had access to these courses. The study focuses on options offered between 2005/06 and 2012/13 through Oregon community colleges, including dual credit (in which high school students earn both high school and college credit by taking a college course at their high school) and dual enrollment (in which high school students earn both high school and college credit by taking a college course at the college campus or online), and on the characteristics of the students who enroll in these classes. The study also explores the relationship between students’ participation in dual credit and later education outcomes, including high school graduation, postsecondary enrollment, and postsecondary persistence. Oregon stakeholders can use the study results to better understand the breadth and characteristics of accelerated college credit options in the state; dual credit programs’ equity gaps—which can inform outreach efforts to students participating at lower rates, such as rural, economically disadvantaged, and racial/ethnic minority students; and data that should be reported to the state to conduct analyses that improve monitoring and evaluation of accelerated college credit programs. Nationally, this study offers an example to other states of potentially useful analyses to inform improvements to these programs.”

Sepanik, S., Safran, S., & Saco, L. (2018). Building college readiness across rural communities: Implementation and outcome findings for the AVID Central Florida Collaborative Study. New York, NY: MDRC. Full text available from

From the abstract: “In the United States today, more jobs than ever before require at least some postsecondary education. Yet too many young adults are either not enrolling or not succeeding in college. This scenario exists across many different types of communities, but schools in rural areas, particularly those with large populations of low-income students, face unique challenges in preparing and inspiring students to attend college. To address these challenges, the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) Center—a nonprofit organization working to close the achievement gap for minority and low-income students—partnered with three rural school districts and the local state college in central Florida to develop and implement programming focused on strengthening college preparedness among middle school and high school students. Supported by funds from an Investing in Innovation (i3) development grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the partners worked together to implement the AVID College Readiness System (ACRS) across eight schools, train secondary and postsecondary instructors in a shared set of teaching strategies and best practices, strengthen the academic rigor of their classes, and develop a set of ‘alignment activities’ for school staff members focused on collaboration and consistency of teaching and study strategies across middle school, high school, and college. The i3 grant also includes an evaluation, conducted by MDRC, of implementation and outcomes over the first three years of the project. The implementation study examines how closely the implementation of the ACRS hewed to the model design and examines the drivers of and obstacles to its success. The outcomes study uses a ‘pre-post’ nonexperimental method (which does not capture causation) to compare both school staff outcomes and student outcomes before implementation with outcomes during the implementation years to explore the promise of the system to positively affect schools and students. The report presents several key findings: (1) Overall, analyses show that the ACRS was implemented successfully at most schools with fairly high fidelity to the model. There was mixed success implementing the alignment activities. (2) Positive change was seen in teachers’ reported use of most ACRS teaching strategies, and in teachers’ and other staff members’ reported attitudes toward academic rigor and college preparation for all students and reported collaboration within and across grade levels and schools. (3) Little difference was found between the reported study habits and learning skills, engagement in school, and postsecondary expectations of students surveyed before implementation and of those surveyed after three years of exposure; however, on average, both groups had relatively high positive responses on most of the measures. (4) Students were more likely to take advanced courses, such as honors and Advanced Placement, and earned more credits in these courses, which are intended to strengthen their preparation for the rigor of college work. (5) Little difference in other measures of students’ academic performance (grade point average and English Language Arts standardized tests), educational attainment (overall credits earned and graduation), and high school persistence were found after three years of implementation compared with the outcomes before implementation.”

Stone, A. (2018). Small-town values: How understanding the values of rural students can influence recruitment strategies. College and University, 93(3), 14–22. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “This exploratory case study examined how college-bound seniors from a rural community formed their personal system of values and how those values informed choices concerning higher education. Furthermore, this article considers implications for outreach and recruitments strategies in rural communities as well as support once rural students arrive on campus.”

II. Rural students’ views about higher education

Agger, C., Meece, J., & Byun, S. (2018). The influences of family and place on rural adolescents’ educational aspirations and post-secondary enrollment. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 47(12), 2554–2568. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Despite the large contingent of students living in rural areas, existing research on the processes that precede the college enrollment of rural adolescents is limited. With a particular focus on gender, this study investigated rural adolescents’ perceptions of family and place and how these perceptions related to their educational aspirations and subsequent college enrollment using a nationwide sample of rural adolescents (N = 3456; 52.5% female). Female adolescents reported higher academic achievement, educational aspirations, parental expectations, and family responsibility and enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions at greater rates compared to male adolescents, who reported significantly higher rural identity and perceptions of job opportunities in the rural community. Utilizing a multiple group moderated mediation approach, the results provided evidence that adolescents’ increased perceptions of their parents’ educational expectations were associated with increased educational aspirations and college enrollment and that adolescents’ increased perceptions of job opportunities in their rural community were associated with decreased educational aspirations. In addition, the results showed that gender moderated the relation between perceptions of job opportunities in the rural community and postsecondary enrollment. These findings highlight how the developmental resources of family and place relate to adolescents’ educational aspirations and subsequent postsecondary enrollment.”

Means, D. R., Clayton, A. B., Conzelmann, J. G., Baynes, P., & Umbach, P. D. (2016). Bounded aspirations: Rural, African American high school students and college access. Review of Higher Education, 39(4), 543–569. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “This qualitative case study explores the career and educational aspirations, college choice process, and college barriers and opportunities of 26 rural, African American high school students. Data included interviews with 26 students and 11 school staff members. Findings suggest that the students’ rural context shapes aspirations. In addition, students have emotional support and motivation to attend college from their family members and schools, but the students did not always have the ‘know how’ to prepare for college. Finally, students described financial and academic preparedness barriers for college, but they also mentioned grades and teenage pregnancy as potential barriers for college.”

Molefe, A., Burke, M. R., Collins, N., Sparks, D., & Hoyer, K. (2017). Postsecondary education expectations and attainment of rural and nonrural students (REL 2017-257). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Prior research shows that rural students’ education expectations and aspirations, as well as their postsecondary enrollment and persistence rates, tend to be lower than those of nonrural students. However, much of that prior research may not apply to today’s students because it uses old data or focuses on individual states or purposive samples. Meanwhile, recent policy initiatives at both the national and state levels have emphasized increasing college-going rates. Moreover, because of the rise in online learning options, high school students have more opportunities to take college preparatory courses and pursue college education without leaving home. The Rural Research Alliance partnered with Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest to examine more recent postsecondary education expectations, attainment, and realization of expectations of rural and nonrural grade 10 students in the REL Midwest Region and the rest of the nation. The study also examined the reasons that rural and nonrural students in the REL Midwest Region reported for not expecting to pursue postsecondary education. Key findings include: (1) Approximately 90 percent of both rural and nonrural grade 10 students in REL Midwest Region states in 2002 expected to attend college, but the percentage who expected to attain a master’s degree or higher was higher among nonrural students than among rural students; (2) The reason that both rural and nonrural students reported most frequently for not expecting to pursue postsecondary education was financial concerns; (3) Rural and nonrural students had similar levels of postsecondary educational attainment by 2012; (4) Almost two-thirds of both rural and nonrural students had fallen short of their grade 10 postsecondary education expectations by 2012; and (5) Student characteristics, and to a lesser degree family characteristics and teacher expectations, rather than school locale, accounted for much of the variation in education expectations and attainment.”

Tieken, M. C. (2016). College talk and the rural economy: Shaping the educational aspirations of rural, first-generation students. Peabody Journal of Education, 91(2), 203–223. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The college-going rates of rural students lag behind those of more urban students, a gap likely due, in part, to rural students’ lower educational aspirations. These lower aspirations appear to be tied to the dilemma that higher education presents for many rural students: whether to remain in their rural home, working in traditional trades and industries that do not require a college degree, or to leave in pursuit of an education that is often the first step toward an adult life lived away. This study seeks to better understand this dilemma by examining the messages that rural, first-generation students receive about the value of higher education. Drawing upon interviews and observations, it shows that high school guidance counselors, college admissions officials, and the staff of community-based college aspirations organizations adopt a strikingly consistent message: they cite struggling rural economies in their argument for the necessity of a practical degree for all students, one that can be easily leveraged into a career. Despite noting broad parental support for this message, many participants also describe continued resistance from some rural families, a perception that may heighten the dilemma of rural college-going for students.”

Additional Organization to Consult

California Postsecondary Education Commission – Full text available from

From the website: “California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) maintains a data system which includes over 30 years of aggregated data and longitudinal, unitary data from the public postsecondary segments from the last 15 years. These data are used by staff for audit and evaluation of student progress in postsecondary education and to make projections and recommendations for future planning. These data have been aggregated and combined and are the source of the data available through the website.”

REL West note: CPEC has one resource that is relevant to this request:

California Postsecondary Education Commission. (2007). Challenges and solutions regarding community college service in rural and remote areas: A progress report. Sacramento, CA: Author. Full text available from

Education Commission of the States (ECS) –

From the website: “The Education Commission of the States (ECS) tracks policy, translates research, provides advice and creates opportunities for state policymakers to learn from one another. ECS supports all 50 states and four territories—the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Each state appoints seven commissioners who help guide our work and their own state’s education agendas; territorial appointments vary. Commissioners also have the authority to approve amendments to bylaws and provide strategic information to our staff regarding state education policy issues.”

REL West note: ECS has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Zinth, J. D. (2014). Dual enrollment: A strategy to improve college-going and college completion among rural students. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Full text available from

Education Dive –

From the website: “Education Dive provides in-depth journalism and insight into the most impactful news and trends shaping K–12 and higher education. The newsletters and website cover topics such as policy, blended learning, classroom tech, learning management and more.”

REL West note: Education Dive has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Schwartz, N. (2019). Three ways to expand higher education opportunities for rural students. Washington, DC: Education Dive. Full text available from

Inside Higher Ed –

From the website: “Inside Higher Ed is the leading digital media company serving the higher education space. Since our founding in 2004, we have become the go-to online source for higher education news, thought leadership, careers and resources. Our mission is to serve all of higher education—individuals, institutions, corporations and non-profits—so they can do their jobs better, transforming their lives and those of the students they serve.”

REL West note: Inside Higher Ed has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Seltzer, Z. (2018). Giving rural students ‘the short box.’ Washington, DC: Inside Higher Ed. Full text available from

Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) –

From the website: “The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to promoting access to and success in higher education for all students. Based in Washington, D.C., IHEP develops innovative policy- and practice-oriented research to guide policymakers and education leaders who develop high-impact policies that will address our nation’s most pressing education challenges.”

REL West note: IHEP has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Davis, L., Watts, K., & Ajinka, J. (2019). Innovative strategies to close postsecondary attainment gaps: Four regional approaches to support rural students. Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy. Full text available from

University Business (UB) Magazine –

From the website: “University Business (UB) is a publication for presidents and other senior officers at nearly every two- and four-year U.S. college and university. The magazine covers all aspects of college and university management and reaches, by request, more then 45,000 print subscribers and 41,000 digital subscribers.”

REL West note: UB has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Zalaznick, M. (2017). Higher ed’s rural appeal. University Business, 20(4), 28–32. Full text available from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(university OR college OR “higher education” OR “post-secondary education”) AND (research) AND (attainment OR enrollment OR recruitment OR admission OR access) AND (rural OR non-urban)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.