Geography and College Attainment: A Place-Based Approach

By Laura W. Perna and Roman Ruiz

June 19, 2017

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by Roman Ruiz & Laura W. Perna

This post is the fourth in a new series, Beyond the Margins: Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students.

It is widely known that despite the presence of numerous federal, state, and institutional policies, college attainment in the United States varies considerably based on demographic characteristics; individuals from low-income families and who are first-generation-to-college are less likely to enroll in higher education, and when they do enroll, they are less likely to complete.

Less well known is that college attainment also varies based on place of residence. In 2012, fewer than one-third of adults ages 25 to 34 had attained at least an associate degree in three states (Nevada, Arkansas and Alaska), while more than half of adults had attained at least an associate degree in four states (New York, Iowa, Minnesota and Massachusetts).

State-level estimates, while informative, mask the variation in college opportunities and outcomes that exists within smaller geographic boundaries. Figure 1 shows that counties with higher shares of adults ages 25 to 64 who have completed at least an associate degree are clustered along the coasts (i.e., the Mid-Atlantic region, southern California, and the San Francisco Bay area) among other locations. Even in regions with historically low college attainment rates such as the Southeast, there are pockets of counties with relatively high attainment. These counties are typically located near metropolitan areas.

Figure 1: Percentage of Adults Age 25 to 64 With an Associate Degree or Higher by U.S. County: 2015

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. (2016). American Community Survey 2015 (5-year estimates).

Place is a useful lens for understanding many life course outcomes, including economic mobility and life expectancy. A place-based approach is needed to address spatial differences in college attainment.

College Attainment and the Rural Student

Applying a spatial lens is particularly useful for understanding the barriers to college access and degree attainment for the rural population, an often-ignored segment that nonetheless yields substantial influence over political and social life. Approximately 60 percent of U.S. counties are classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as “mostly rural” or “completely rural” (Figure 2). These counties are home to 42 million residents (or 14 percent of the total U.S. population).

Figure 2: Rurality of U.S. Counties: 2010

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. (2016). County classification lookup table [Data file].

College attainment is typically lower in rural than urban counties. Figure 3 shows that in 2015, approximately a quarter of adults ages 25 to 64 in completely rural and mostly rural counties held at least an associate degree, compared with 42 percent in mostly urban counties. Differences in attainment rates by rurality are due to differential attainment of bachelor’s and graduate degrees. One-third of adults ages 25 to 64 in mostly urban counties hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 18 percent in mostly rural counties and 17 percent in completely rural counties. Similar shares of working-age adults in completely rural, mostly rural and mostly urban counties hold an associate degree alone (approximately 10 percent).

Figure 3: Percentage of Adults Age 25 to 64 With at Least an Associate Degree by Rurality: 2015

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. (2016). American Community Survey 2015 (5-year estimates).

Rural youth face a host of social, economic, and spatial barriers that hinder postsecondary access and completion. They are more likely to have parents who lack a bachelor’s degree and who have lower expectations that their children will attain a four-year degree. Rural students also tend to have fewer financial resources to pay the costs of postsecondary education. Rural residents, on average, have lower household incomes and are more likely to live in poverty than urban residents.

College attainment in rural areas is also restricted by the lack of geographic proximity to four-year institutions. These so-called “education deserts” offer limited postsecondary options within commuting distance, leaving rural youth to travel farther distances to attend college and incur additional financial and non-financial costs, such as travel time. Familial obligations and strong community ties can lead rural students to attend local two-year institutions, conforming to the norms of their community, but leaving them with a lower likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree.

 Compared to urban economies, rural economies are more dependent on farming, manufacturing and mining industries. However, these industries are employing declining shares of the population, and technological improvements are increasing the educational requirements of the jobs that remain and that are being created in these and other sectors.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Understanding the geographic dimension of college access and attainment can allow policymakers, college administrations, and practitioners to craft interventions that address the localized needs of students, families, and communities.

Higher education institutions should engage in college outreach and recruitment practices that target rural students and other students from places with low levels of college attainment. Texas A&M University, for example, arranges bus transportation from West Texas (nearly 700 miles away) to campus so that prospective students are able to participate in on-campus recruitment activities. The University of Arkansas (UA) recently created the Accelerated Student Achievement Program, which identifies low-income, first-generation-to-college students from the Arkansas Delta region (the opposite side of the state from where UA is located) and provides them with enhanced college preparation services, a summer bridge program, and financial aid.

System-wide admissions policies that recognize the localized contexts of students can also extend college opportunity to students who do not attend traditional feeder high schools with long established institutional relationships with high-quality institutions. So-called percent plans are one policy response to broaden the pool from which public flagships typically draw students. The University of California (UC) System’s Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) program provides a dual eligibility pathway by granting UC admission to students in the top 9 percent of their high school’s GPA, among other factors. After implementation of Texas’s Top Ten Percent law, enrollments at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) expanded from rural high schools and high schools with larger shares of economically disadvantaged students, and the concentration of enrollments from a few suburban high schools declined. Under these percent plans, students compete within their schools to gain admission, thus granting students who are academically high-achieving relative to their peers’ admission to the state’s prestigious four-year universities.

Along with strategies for increasing diversity in race and class, colleges and universities should also consider strategies for increasing the geographic diversity of their students. Geographic diversity should be one form of diversity colleges and universities weigh when making enrollment and institutional financial aid decisions. Institutions benefit from the diversity of perspective and culture that rural and geographically distant students bring to campus. Following a state ban on race-based affirmative action policies in 2006, the University of Michigan adopted holistic admissions review, which considers academic accomplishments as well as personal dimensions such as community involvement and neighborhood characteristics. While geography is not an entirely suitable proxy for race and class, geographic consideration may advance an institution’s diversity agenda across a number of dimensions because of residential segregation.

Over the past decade, place-targeted financial aid programs, commonly known as “promise programs,” have also emerged as a strategy for increasing college access and attainment. Where traditional financial aid programs make awards based only on financial need or merit-based criteria, promise programs typically require residency in a particular place and/or attendance at a particular school or district. While a few states have adopted statewide promise programs (e.g., Tennessee, Oregon), most programs are micro-targeted, small-scale programs designed to address the economic and educational conditions of a localized population. Examples include Arkansas’s El Dorado Promise and Illinois’ Rockford Promise.


Place is an influential determinant of college opportunity and success. But geography should not be destiny. States and higher education institutions should adopt policies and practices that recognize place-based disadvantage. Targeted outreach, recruitment, institutional and financial supports for rural and other geographically underrepresented students are all potentially effective strategies for dismantling spatial constraints and ensuring that college completion is possible regardless of place.

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About the Authors

Laura W. Perna

Roman Ruiz

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