Rural Students’ Enrollment in College Drops Dramatically

students applying for financial aid for college dips 18% in rural areas

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Rural states face a sharp drop in student enrollment in higher education, NPR reported. States like West Virginia have seen a drop in students filling out federal forms for student aid by as much as 32%. Our thoughts on education may help drive the change.

Young college student studying
Colleges and universities nationwide, especially in rural areas, saw a drop in enrollment from the high-school graduating class of 2020. Photo By El Nariz / Shutterstock

According to NPR, students in rural areas are showing a major decline in applying for financial aid—and it isn’t from sudden spikes in wealth. “In rural communities […] the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic year are […] driving a dramatic drop in the proportion of students going on to college, threatening the already precarious economies of rural areas and widening their socioeconomic drift from urban and suburban America,” the article said.

“The number of rural students filling out the federal application for financial aid, a sign of whether they’re even considering going to college, has plummeted by more than 18%. The numbers are down even more in largely rural states including West Virginia (32%), Louisiana (30%), [and] Mississippi (26%).”

Additionally, colleges and universities located in rural areas have already seen drops in enrollment. The way that we think about education and its priority in our lives may contribute as well.

Core Curriculum

The relevance and importance of today’s education—especially formal education—cannot be overestimated,” said Dr. Alexander W. Wiseman, Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University. “This might explain why education is the focus of so much public debate and discussion in the United States and around the world.”

Dr. Wiseman said that in order to better understand our own ideas of what education should mean—and, by extension, help decide whether college is right for us or our children—we should ask ourselves a series of questions and decide the answers.

“Which is more important—gaining knowledge or learning new skills?” he asked. “Knowledge is generally defined as what you know; skills are what you do. Skills can usually be trained, but knowledge is something that is learned.”

Second, what do you believe is the most effective way for a teacher to communicate knowledge and skills to students? Many educators differ in their beliefs on individual learning versus shared or interactive learning. Sitting at a desk with a book is vastly different from doing a group project that requires interaction with others and shared ideas.

Set Up for Success … Sometimes

Continuing with Dr. Wiseman’s examination of education, how do we best measure a student’s aptitude with a subject? Standardized testing may mean educational success or failure, but does success in school translate to success in life?

“Not in my opinion—and thankfully, the evidence supports that this isn’t the case, as well,” Dr. Wiseman said. “But it does translate to success in school, so what we really know is how well someone will perform on standardized tests in school. But we still can’t be sure whether that knowledge and those test-taking skills will one day transfer to the real world of work, family, and so on.”

The question of whether or not students should follow high school with college also comes with social implications. It starts with asking ourselves, “Whenever their education in high school comes to an end, how much should students know, at a minimum, upon entering adulthood?”

“Asking what people should know at the most basic levels involves questions that [famed educator John] Dewey would ask as well, because they help us think about what kind of society we want,” Dr. Wiseman said. “Do we want a society where there’s a minimum level of mathematics or science knowledge and skill?”

Answering all these questions may help guide students in their decisions about attending college, whether during the pandemic or after it. Parents of potential college students should consider them as well.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Professor Alexander W. Wiseman contributed to this article.

Dr. Alexander W. Wiseman contributed to this article. Dr. Wiseman is an Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He received his PhD in both Comparative and International Education and Educational Theory and Policy from The Pennsylvania State University.