Rural Education

This topic provides a summary of information from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and other Federal statistical sources on the educational attainment of rural (nonmetropolitan) workers, and the relationship between educational attainment and economic indicators. In addition to the material below, the publication Rural Education at a Glance, 2017 Edition offers a summary of conditions and trends in rural education. 

Education is closely related to the economic prosperity of rural people and places. However, an increasingly educated rural America still lags urban (metropolitan) areas in educational attainment. The educational attainment of people living in rural areas has increased markedly over time, but has not kept pace with urban gains. There is a large and growing gap in college and postgraduate educational attainment between rural and urban areas, even among young adults. Educational attainment is also strongly related to labor market outcomes in rural areas. Median earnings increase with higher levels of educational attainment, and the gap in urban-rural median earnings also increases with educational attainment.

Educational Attainment

The overall educational attainment of people living in rural areas has increased markedly over time, but the share of adults with at least a bachelor's degree is still higher in urban areas. In 1960, 60 percent of the rural population ages 25 and over had not completed high school. By 2017—57 years later—that proportion had dropped to 14 percent. Over the same period, the proportion of rural adults 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher increased from 5 percent to 20 percent; in urban areas, this proportion stood at 34 percent in 2017. The proportion of rural adults with a bachelor's degree or more increased by 5 percentage points between 2000 and 2017, and the proportion without a high school degree or equivalent, such as a GED, declined by 10 percentage points. 

A college completion gap persists for young adults, who are more likely to have completed high school than older cohorts. Between 2000 and 2017, the share of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a bachelor's degree or higher grew in urban areas from 29 percent to 38 percent; this was a larger increase than observed in rural counties, where the college-educated proportion of young adults rose from 15 percent to 20 percent. A combination of factors could be responsible for the urban-rural college completion gap. Rural household income trails urban household income by roughly 20 to 25 percent, making college relatively less affordable for families living in rural areas. Geographic distance may add another cost to attending college for young people who grow up in rural areas. Those who do complete college may decide to work in urban areas that offer higher wages and more jobs that fit their skill levels.

Educational Attainment and Labor Market Outcomes

In both urban and rural areas, education is associated with higher earnings. Median earnings for rural working adults with a high school diploma were $29,240 in 2017, which was  nearly $7,000 more than the median for rural working adults without a high school diploma or equivalent. The urban-rural earnings gap increases by level of educational attainment. The urban-rural gap in earnings is lowest (about $900) for those with less than a high school diploma/equivalent and is largest (nearly $18,000) for those with a graduate or professional degree.

The Geography of Low Educational Attainment

Although rural areas have made gains in educational attainment over time, there is still wide geographic variation in educational attainment within rural areas. The map below shows areas with low levels of educational attainment, defined here as counties where 20 percent or more of the working-age population (adults age 25 to 64) lacked a high school diploma or equivalent during 2008-12. There are 467 such counties in the United States, and a majority of these—about 4 out of 5—are located in rural areas (see more on the ERS County Typology Codes). These rural counties with low levels of educational attainment tend to be clustered in areas of high and persistent poverty (another classification in the ERS County Typology Codes), such as the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and along the U.S.-Mexico border. See more on the Geography of Poverty.

A note about the data source for county-level information. The American Community Survey (ACS) was developed by the Census Bureau to replace the long form of the decennial census. The ACS uses a rolling sample of U.S. housing units (250,000 monthly) to provide basic population characteristics annually for areas with populations of at least 65,000 people. ACS accumulates samples over 5-year intervals to produce estimates for areas with smaller populations; only the 5-year-average ACS provides coverage for all counties in the United States.

Last updated: Tuesday, August 20, 2019

For more information contact: Tracey Farrigan