Recently we did a deep dive into research on rural areas in the U.S. Fewer students from rural areas are attending college and this presents a real challenge for universities.

Here’s data from the Lumina Foundation on students from rural areas, which make up about 14% of the school-age population:

  • These students graduate from high school at higher rates than the national average—80% finish 12th grade.
  • They also score better than the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  • Following high school graduation, 59% of students start college, compared to 62% of urban students and 67% of suburban students.
  • But only 19% of people in rural areas have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33% nationally.

What’s happening? Either rural students are dropping out of college before earning a degree or they’re moving away from rural areas.

It’s Happening Nationwide

College enrollment in the U.S. has declined for eight consecutive years (USA Today).

It’s not an across-the-board drop, however. Applications at some colleges and universities are growing strongly. A fair number of those are tech colleges, but others are large public universities and smaller private colleges. And some are in largely rural areas.

What’s behind this trend?

  • The skyrocketing costs of college and the prospect of being saddled with student loans may be discouraging applicants, who don’t see the value of a college education.
  • The nation’s economy can affect enrollment. Students stay in college longer during recessions, so the 2010 recession created a bubble.
  • The population in many rural areas is aging and numbers are declining.

Younger Generations Leaving

According to our research, young people are leaving rural areas to pursue better education and economic opportunities.

  • The median age in rural areas is 43, as opposed to 36 in urban areas.
  • Youth in rural areas often lack access to innovative technologies (and even mainstream technologies, such as broadband), and may not see the opportunities available to them.
  • Not only are young people not attracted to the most common types of jobs available in rural areas, such as mining and farming, but technological advancements are also decreasing the number of employment choices.
  • College recruiters often bypass rural areas, instead visiting suburban or urban locations for the sake of efficiency—and because rural households have lower incomes, making them less profitable for colleges.
  • A 2018 survey conducted by NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health confirmed that most young people leave their rural communities for job-related reasons (65%).

Brain-drain is real. Many committees, councils and task forces across rural America are working to stop it.

Our research notes that the U.S. isn’t alone in this trend, either. It’s also occurring in the U.K. Young people are leaving small towns because they don’t have the resources or incentives to make them stay.

On the Bright Side

In the U.K., the Prince's Countryside Fund suggests that a way to reverse this trend is to prioritize affordable housing, transport, training and improve employment conditions with the involvement of the private sector.

For colleges and universities, one of the answers is online classes. Several of the state universities in South Dakota helped reverse the drop in enrollment. At Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., for instance, on-campus enrollment has dropped 30% since 2010, while online enrollment has spiked by 60% during that same period (Argus Leader).

In addition, on USA Today’s list of colleges with rising application numbers, a significant number are technology-focused.

Dakota State University, for example, is South Dakota’s designated “tech school,” offering degrees in fields such as cyber security. In part because of their focus on technology, they’ve seen a 5% increase in enrollment in the last decade.

Another example is Wayne State College located in Wayne, Neb., which has an enrollment of 3,633. Its fastest-growing major is criminal justice, which prepares students for work in law enforcement, anti-terrorism, criminal lab science and more.

Paulsen is working with several universities to help change this trend. The keys include:

  • Finding a relevant focus
  • Clearly communicating the value proposition
  • Offering the flexibility to meet student needs

If you’d like to discuss this topic, don’t hesitate to give us a call! Contact Sara Steever at or 605-336-1745.