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Who are Rural Students? How Definitions of Rurality Affect Research on College Completion


Given a revived national discourse about rural populations, more educational research on rural students is necessary, including ways that rural students transition to college and the success (or lack thereof) that they experience once there. However, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has changed the definition of rurality used in each iterative dataset over the last few decades, casting doubt on the consistency of what is meant by the term rural. The purpose of this study is to: (a) communicate to the educational research audience various ways of defining rural students, and specifically how NCES has changed their definition of rurality over their last three major data collections; (b) demonstrate how conclusions about rural students’ and their college degree completion may differ based on these alternate NCES definitions; and (c) discuss how this specific example using NCES data relates to the wider landscape of research on rural students. Results show that conclusions about college degree completion change depending on the definition of rurality used for analysis. Therefore, the education research community should consider the options for defining rural students, report transparently about the choices made, consider the sensitivity of results to the definition of rurality, and ultimately build a more robust body of literature concerning rural students’ college success. Gaining definitional clarity will be beneficial, particularly for those who wish to translate their research into practical action for the benefit of rural students.

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  1. We note that an additional issue for researchers to consider is the recategorization of geographical areas based on population changes over time, but addressing this issue is beyond the scope of this brief.

  2. This is not strictly true for the most recent HSLS dataset, as NCES gathered data from 9th graders rather than 10th graders and followed a different data collection strategy than previous collections, making comparisons over time less appropriate.


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Correspondence to Catherine A. Manly.

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Appendix 1

See Table 3.

Table 3 Estimated (weighted) means and standard errors of estimates for college enrollees, and by subpopulations defined by the NELS, ELS, and HSLS rurality definitions

Appendix 2

See Table 4.

Table 4 Predictors of college degree completion for college attendees across three different definitions of rurality using the same student data—multinomial logistic regression models, odds ratios reported, compared to no degree completion

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Manly, C.A., Wells, R.S. & Kommers, S. Who are Rural Students? How Definitions of Rurality Affect Research on College Completion. Res High Educ 61, 764–779 (2020).

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  • Rural students
  • Postsecondary education
  • Quantitative analysis
  • Secondary data analysis
  • Degree completion