New research paints an alarming picture of crises facing rural students

Key points:

Many rural communities are still facing multiple crises in educational loss, economic outcomes, unemployment, and mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Why Rural Matters 2023 report.

The report examines the needs and inequities affecting 9.5 million students attending public schools in rural areas – more than one in five students nationally. The report critically examines how educational supports and resources for rural student well-being are distributed.

Any issue impacting rural families and communities also affects rural children, including all aspects of education, mental health, and physical well-being.

“For more than 20 years, the Why Rural Matters series of reports has been the go-to resource for policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and others who want to understand the contexts and conditions of rural education in the 50 states,” said Dr. Jerry Johnson of East Carolina University, researcher, and co-author of the Why Rural Matters report.

“The Why Rural Matters report arms NREA state leaders, legislators, and communities with the information and data needed to take action in their state capitals, advocating for the needs of rural students and highlighting strengths in rural schools,” said Allen Pratt, Executive Director, National Rural Education Association (NREA).

Key findings include:

Rural schools

  • At least half of public schools were rural in 13 states.
  • At least one third of public schools were rural in 14 states.
  • Roughly half of all rural students attended school in 10 states.

Access to school counselors and psychologists

  • Rural school districts averaged 310 students served by one school counselor or psychologist compared to a 295 to 1 ratio in non-rural districts.
  • Seven states had rural districts with ratios worse than 400 to 1 (Minnesota, California, Mississippi, Alaska, Louisiana, Indiana, and Michigan).
  • Rural Michigan children had the highest ratio of an average of 574 students to every psychologist or school counselor.

Most rural gifted and talented programs demonstrate gender equity

  • Nationally, more than half of students in gifted and talented programs in rural districts were female. Rural Rhode Island had the highest percent of females in gifted and talented programs at 62.4 percent. However, variations across states showed more work is needed.
  • In three states, females’ participation in rural school gifted programs is at least eight percentage points lower than that of males: Alaska (40.0 percent vs. 60.0 percent), New Hampshire (45.4 percent vs. 54.6 percent), and Wyoming (45.7 percent vs. 54.3 percent). And females were heavily underrepresented in rural gifted math programs and math competitions.
  • More pressing than gender equity was the absence of gifted and talented programs in some rural schools. Of the 24,736 public rural schools in the US, 10,071 (40.7 percent) appeared not to offer any program specific to gifted students.

More gifted and talented program access needed for Black and Hispanic students in rural districts

  • Despite 17.1 percent of students in rural schools identifying as Hispanic, only 9.1 percent of the students in the gifted programs at these same schools were Hispanic.
  • Similarly, 10.6 percent of the rural school population identified as Black, but only 5.2 percent of the gifted student population in rural schools was Black.
  • In contrast, 64.8 percent of rural students were White, but 77.4 percent of the rural students enrolled in gifted programs were White.

Additional themes found in the report include:

  • Rural areas appear to offset some of the impact of poverty on educational outcomes.
  • Many rural areas continue to lack basic internet access.
  • Students in rural school districts are more likely to graduate high school than their non-rural counterparts.

The Rural School and Community Trust produced the first Why Rural Matters report in 1999. Research and publication of the report transitioned to the NREA in 2023.

“Working in some of the poorest, most challenging places, the Rural School and Community Trust involves young people in learning linked to their communities, improves the quality of teaching and school leadership, and advocates in a variety of ways for appropriate state and federal educational policies, including efforts to ensure equitable and adequate resources for rural schools,” said Robert Mahaffey, Executive Director of the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit addressing the crucial relationship between good schools and thriving communities.

More students attend rural schools than attend the 100 largest U.S. school districts combined. Nearly one in seven rural students experiences poverty, one in 15 lacks health insurance, and one in 10 has changed residence in the previous 12 months. The issues impacting rural families and communities extend to rural children. This larger picture signals the importance of including all aspects of students’ mental, emotional, and physical well-being in the national discourse. 

Yet, rural schools and students often seem invisible because many policymakers lack personal experience in rural schools and have not yet developed a complete understanding of the spatial inequities faced by rural communities. Spatial and educational equity is conceptualized in two ways in the National Rural Education Research Agenda: 1) spatial inequity, or how equity challenges are related to place, and 2) how equity, or rather, inequity relates to diverse identities and social circumstances present within the rural school and community.

After years of measuring racial diversity through the inadequate lens of “White and non-White,” the researchers used the rural diversity index begun in the 2019 Why Rural Matters report. The index shows that when randomly choosing two students from a school in a rural district in the United States, there would be about a one-in-three chance that the students would identify as being from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. The most recent statistics describing that likelihood is 33.4 percent in 2023, up from 31.9 percent in the 2019 report, underscoring the steadily diversifying landscape of the rural United States. Additional key findings of the report are as follows:

Across 50 states, rural districts receive a disproportionately larger share of school funding because of the higher relative costs of running rural schools. Fourteen states, however, provided disproportionately less funding to rural districts: Nebraska had the most significant disparity, followed by Vermont, Rhode Island, Iowa, Delaware, South Dakota, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. 

Why Rural Matters was published by the NREA and its partners to examine how educational supports and resources for student well-being are being distributed, casting light on which rural children are most in need of additional support. The report provides a state-by-state look at a range of factors that affect rural students’ education. It was distributed today at the National Forum to Advance Rural Education (NFARE) conference and posted on the NREA website, including data on the condition of rural education in each state.

This press release originally appeared online.

Laura Ascione
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