[imgbelt;Student_map.jpg]Contrary to what you might hear, enrollment and student diversity are on the rise in rural school districts, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
A flurry of news stories cropped up last year when the 2012 U.S. Census estimates led to claims that many rural counties in the U.S. are “dying.”
Although some rural areas are indeed declining in population, this figure obscures the larger overall trend: The number of students in rural school districts is steadily growing, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Just as important, the growing rural population comprises an increasingly rich racial composition.
Part of the reason for this contradictory story may be that the NCES uses a different definition of “rural” than the simple “metro/nonmetro” definition (see below) readers of the Daily Yonder frequently see. But there’s much more to the story than just a difference in how we define rural. The facts show that school districts located in our nation’s smallest communities are increasing the size of their enrollments and becoming more diverse.
To debunk three myths about the rural student population, this article builds on the findings of Why Rural Matters, the biennial report of the Rural School and Community Trust,
Myth #1: The rural student population in the U.S. is shrinking.
Enrollment in rural school districts isn’t in decline; it’s expanding. Why Rural Matters 2013–14 found that enrollment in rural school districts has increased since the previous edition of the report two years ago. If we increase the scope to include the newest year of data, the total enrollment in rural districts now exceeds 10.5 million students—880,000 more than there were three years earlier. The interactive map at the top of this article shows the change in rural student enrollment between 2008 and 2012 for each county.
This growth in the absolute number of rural students might seem to be simply a byproduct of the overall growth in the U.S. population. On the contrary, during the same three years that the rural student population grew, the total student enrollment in towns, suburban areas, and urban areas declined. In terms of percentages, rural enrollment increased by 9.1% while town enrollment decreased by 7.8%, suburban enrollment decreased by 1.7%, and urban enrollment decreased by 1.4%.
(All data in this article is taken from the National Center for Education Statistics. Unless otherwise noted, the changes in enrollment refer to public elementary and secondary school districts between the 2008–09 school year and the 2011–12 school year, the most recent year for which data is available on every public school district in the U.S. NCES defines a rural school district as one where a majority of students attend schools located in Census-defined rural territories. In general terms, these are non-urbanized areas with fewer than 2,500 residents. More information on definitions may be found at the bottom of the article, How the Study Defines “Rural School Districts.”)
Myth #2: Rural schools lack racial diversity.
To be sure, this myth is perpetuated more easily in states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island where more than 95% of the rural students are white than in a state such as New Mexico where less than 20% of the rural students are white (Why Rural Matters 2013–14). And with whites constituting 71.5% of the rural student population, it remains true that nonwhite students are literally in the minority.
However, this also means that, nationwide, more than one in four rural students are not white. More important, rural enrollment is increasing much faster among racial minorities than among whites. From 2008 to 2012, the number of nonwhite students attending rural districts increased by 23.9% while the number of rural white students increased by only 4.7%.
Myth #3: Urban areas are becoming more racially diverse at a faster rate than rural areas.
The 23.9% increase in rural nonwhite enrollment is even more impressive when compared with the same increase in other locales. Between 2008 and 2012, suburban school districts experienced a 9.2% increase in the number of nonwhite students. In town districts (see definitions at the bottom of this article), the increase was only 4.2%, and in urban areas, the increase was 2.9%.
Although rural districts only saw a 1.5% increase in the number of black students between 2008 and 2012, nonrural districts experienced no growth at all. In fact, during that same time period, the black student enrollment decreased by 4.5% in suburban districts, by 10.1% in urban districts and by 11.5% in town districts. A similar trend occurred with Asian students. An increase of 22.7% in rural Asian students contrasted with the 0.8% decrease in Asian students in urban districts, a 6.3% decrease in suburban districts and a 17.7% decrease in town districts. Hispanic student enrollment increased in all four locales, but the rate was much higher in rural districts (rural: 32.5%, town: 5.9%, suburban: 12.0%, urban: 7.3%). In other words, across the U.S., the Hispanic student enrollment is growing three times as fast in rural areas as in nonrural areas.
Despite the outmigration experienced in some rural areas around the country, the data clearly shows that rural student enrollment is growing and that it is growing more diverse at a dramatic rate. It is up to educators and policymakers to figure out how to acknowledge and leverage this change to best serve all of the students.
How the Study Defines “Rural School Districts”
Definitions of rural, town, suburban and urban school districts are drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency. The NCES classifies each of the nation’s school districts as rural, town, suburban or urban based on the proximity of individual school buildings to Census-defined urban centers and the total number of students at each type of school in a given district. This definition is different from the metro/nonmetro definition that may be more familiar to readers of the Daily Yonder. A full discussion of NCES’s classification method is available here on the NCES website.
Note that, under the NCES definition, some counties we typically think of as “rural” have no rural districts.
Daniel Showalter, Ph.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-author of the Rural School and Community Trust’s report, Why Rural Matters 2013-14: The Condition of Rural Education in the 50 States. He is a visiting professor of mathematics at Ohio University.
Why Rural Matters ranks each state on 24 indicators related to the health and importance of rural education. Indicators include measures of finance, poverty, diversity, academic performance and policy issues. In addition to these traditional measures of rural education, this newest edition of the Rural School and Community Trust’s report includes a focus on early childhood education. For more information on the Rural Trust, please visit the website at www.ruraledu.org or contact Rob Mahaffey at email@example.com.