Rural Education

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

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 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. Rural workers with less than a high school diploma faced the highest unemployment rates and largest declines in median earnings during the recession period (2007-09), compared with those who had at least a high school diploma. After the official end of the recession in 2009, unemployment rates between educational attainment categories in rural areas have started to converge.

Rural areas with low levels of educational attainment have had higher poverty and unemployment rates. Rural counties with the lowest levels of educational attainment have higher poverty (see note on poverty definition) and child poverty rates (see "Understanding the Geography of Growth in Rural Child Poverty," Amber Waves, July 2015). Unemployment rates are also higher in rural counties with low 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 2015—55 years later—that proportion had dropped to 15 percent. Over the same period, the proportion of rural adults ages 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher increased from 5 percent to 19 percent; in urban areas, this proportion stood at 33 percent in 2015. The proportion of rural adults with a bachelor's degree or more increased by 4 percentage points between 2000 and 2015, and the proportion without a high school degree or equivalent, such as a GED, declined by 9 percentage points. For more on college education, see "Rural Areas Lag Urban Areas in College Completion," Amber Waves, December 2014.

A college completion gap persists for young adults, who are more likely to have completed high school than older cohorts. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with bachelor's degrees grew in urban areas from 29 percent to 36 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 (see Income topic page), 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 $27,327 in 2015, which was $6,092 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 ($97) for those with less than a high school diploma or equivalent and is largest ($18,150) for those with graduate or professional degrees.

Among all rural residents, unemployment rates remain much lower for those with more educational attainment, partly as a result of an increasing demand for more highly skilled labor. In 2010, the unemployment rate for rural adults between ages 25 and 64 without a high school diploma peaked at 15 percent, compared with 5 percent for those with at least a bachelor's degree. Since then, rural unemployment rates have declined across all educational attainment categories.

The Geography of Low Educational Attainment

A note about the data source. 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 3- and 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.

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) lacks a high school diploma or equivalent, using data from the 2008-12 American Community Survey (see more on the ERS County Typology Codes). There are 467 such counties in the United States, and a majority of these—about 4 out of 5—are located in rural areas. 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.

Educational Attainment and Poverty

A note about the poverty definition. The analysis reported here uses the official poverty measure as estimated in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS). The measure is based on self-reported household pre-tax income, adjusted for household size and, over time, increases in the cost of living. In 2013, the official poverty line was $23,624 for a family of four (two adults and two children). The official poverty measure does not take into account nonmonetary benefits, such as subsidized housing, food programs, and Medicare, or benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit program.

Low educational attainment in rural counties is related to higher poverty rates. In 2011-15, the average poverty rate for rural counties with low education was about 8 percentage points higher than for all other rural counties, and the average child poverty rate was about 11 percentage points higher. Average unemployment rates among rural low-education counties were also higher compared with all other rural counties in 2011-15 by about 1 percentage point.