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Research in Higher Education


Given a revived national discourse about rural populations, more educational research on rural students is necessary, including ways that rural students transition to college and the success (or lack thereof) that they experience once there. However, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has changed the definition of rurality used in each iterative dataset over the last few decades, casting doubt on the consistency of what is meant by the term rural. The purpose of this study is to: (a) communicate to the educational research audience various ways of defining rural students, and specifically how NCES has changed their definition of rurality over their last three major data collections; (b) demonstrate how conclusions about rural students’ and their college degree completion may differ based on these alternate NCES definitions; and (c) discuss how this specific example using NCES data relates to the wider landscape of research on rural students. Results show that conclusions about college degree completion change depending on the definition of rurality used for analysis. Therefore, the education research community should consider the options for defining rural students, report transparently about the choices made, consider the sensitivity of results to the definition of rurality, and ultimately build a more robust body of literature concerning rural students’ college success. Gaining definitional clarity will be beneficial, particularly for those who wish to translate their research into practical action for the benefit of rural students.



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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.