Rural-Urban College Completion Gap Growing

Last Updated: December 17, 2014

This article appeared in the December 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

High school completion rates are up in rural areas but rural adults remain less likely than urban adults to have a college degree.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) examined data in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) and found that the proportion of rural residents ages 25–64 with a college degree was fourteen percentage points lower than in urban areas. Further, the rural-urban gap among four-year degree holders had increased by two percentage points since 2000. ACS data included the years 2008–2012.

Writing in Amber Waves for the USDA's Economic Research Service, Alexander Marre notes than during the most recent recession rural counties with higher levels of educational attainment had "lower unemployment rates during the recession and faster job growth during the recovery than other rural counties." In addition, the 25% of rural counties with the highest educational attainment in the years 2007–2011 grew in population, on average. Remaining rural counties lost population, on average.

It is important to note that ACS data also indicate that the percentage of residents of nonmetropolitan counties that had some college and the percentage with associate's degrees were slightly higher than in metropolitan counties. Among residents of nonmetropolitan counties, 22.9% had some college and 9.2% had an associate's degree compared to 22.0% with some college and 8.4% with an associate's degree in metropolitan counties.

This data suggests that rural residents are interested in pursuing college degrees but may lack access. Distance to a college of any kind is an impediment to higher education in many rural communities. Where colleges are relatively close to rural communities they are generally more likely to be two-year community and technical colleges.

According to the Amber Waves article, employment in education and health services are becoming an increasingly large proportion of all jobs in rural counties. During the period of the most recent recession and recovery, these two economic sectors grew in nonmetropolitan counties.

Increasing access to higher education, especially four-year degree programs, is an important economic development strategy for rural communities. Access might be improved by offering more four-year programs on the campuses of and in collaboration with two-year colleges; broadening financial aid to help cover the increased transportation costs, which are generally higher in rural areas; and strengthening broadband access in rural areas so residents have better access to online learning opportunities. 

Read more:


Read more from the December 2014 Rural Policy Matters.