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To increase awareness of rural-specific issues related to postsecondary access and success in the Midwest and to help improve stakeholder capacity to most effectively target resources
for rural populations.
Message From the Alliance Lead
I was born in a small town that at the time had fewer than 1,400 residents. My father was raised in a town of around 950; my mother grew up in a community of around 8,500. What do these communities have in common? Each one is considered a rural community.
The fascinating diversity of our nation’s rural communities presents educators, policymakers, and community members with a number of assets and challenges as they work to provide the best educational opportunities to students. The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest Rural Research Alliance works to help address these challenges.
The members of the Rural Research Alliance are invested in improving postsecondary outcomes for rural students, recruiting and supporting highly effective teachers and administrators in our rural communities, and implementing innovative and technology-enabled instructional strategies to assist both students and educators. I look forward to working with our alliance members to explore these issues further in 2016.—Victoria Cirks
Lessons Learned From Examining College Enrollment Patterns in Rural Indiana
A gap exists in college enrollment between rural and nonrural high school graduates in the United States. This issue is especially relevant in Indiana, where 31 percent of high school students attend rural schools. Increasing rural students’ postsecondary educational attainment requires a better understanding of the factors that influence different types of students.
To examine this issue, REL Midwest conducted a study and released a report, College Enrollment Patterns for Rural Indiana High School Graduates. Policymakers and school leaders in Indiana have committed to increasing postsecondary degree attainment, and this study supported Indiana’s work by providing descriptive information about the college enrollment patterns of the state’s rural high school graduates.
“This study answers some of the misconceptions regarding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of college choices of rural Indiana students,” said John Hill, Ed.D., executive director of the National Rural Education Association (NREA) and a member of REL Midwest’s Rural Research Alliance.
Using 2010 student data primarily culled from Indiana’s Student Information System, the REL Midwest research team analyzed differences in rural and nonrural college enrollment rates. As senior researcher Elisabeth Davis explains, the study also examined the academic rigor of the colleges that students chose to attend.
The study found that rural and nonrural students had similar academic preparation, but there were key differences in college enrollment trends. Rural students were more likely to enroll in two-year colleges than were nonrural students. Davis also found that rural students were more likely to “undermatch”: They were more likely to enroll in colleges for which they were more than academically well qualified than their nonrural peers.
The following key demographic differences exist between rural and nonrural graduates:
- Rural students traveled greater distances to attend two-year and less selective four-year colleges than did nonrural students.
- Rural students were less likely to be eligible for school lunch programs than were their nonrural peers, suggesting that rural students have a lower poverty rate.
- Previous research indicates that rural students plan to stay in their communities as adults, a factor that may influence their college choices.
Previous research suggests that several factors could affect rural students’ college enrollment decisions, including the possibility of high-paying technology jobs that do not require four-year degrees and a desire to stay in their communities. The availability of information regarding postsecondary options also may affect the choices made by rural and nonrural graduates.
Davis emphasizes the importance of state-specific research to address challenges. For example, Indiana may present a unique relationship between students’ rural locations and economic conditions that differs from the nation as a whole; that is, rural graduates in Indiana do not necessarily have higher poverty rates than their nonrural counterparts. This suggests that there are factors influencing two-year college enrollment among rural Indiana graduates that are unrelated to poverty and socioeconomic status.
Meet the Alliance Member: Fred Nolan, Ph.D.
Fred Nolan, Ph.D., is executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA) and a member of REL Midwest’s Rural Education Research Alliance. Dr. Nolan joined the alliance soon after he became MREA’s executive director in 2011.
MREA brings together school board members, administrators, teachers, and community members to serve rural school districts in Minnesota through advocacy, professional development, and networking. As executive director, Dr. Nolan drives communications, analysis, and recruitment. He coordinates MREA staff to share information with members through e-blasts and other communications mechanisms to ensure everyone stays up to date on rural education issues affecting the state. He analyzes complex data from the state education agency to distill the most actionable information for the legislature and school districts. He attends in-person meetings with superintendents from member and nonmember school districts to share the organization’s mission and to encourage participation. In fact, Dr. Nolan put more than 3,000 miles on his car in September traveling to these meetings across the state.
Dr. Nolan spent 36 years as an educator prior to joining MREA. He served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in seven school districts—six of them rural—in Minnesota. He says his practitioner background is invaluable in his current role.
“If I hadn’t lived those roles with students, teachers, administrators, school boards, and communities, I wouldn’t be able to size something up and say, ‘How’s that going to work?'” he said. “It’s easier to visualize or imagine what a prospective law is going to do statewide.”
Dr. Nolan relies on quality research from REL Midwest and other organizations when advocating at the state level. Recently, MREA advocated and shared information with members about aproposal to introduce new credentialing requirements for Minnesota’s secondary teachers to teach dual-credit programs. In an e-blast, MREA shared REL Midwest’s reference desk response on research into dual enrollment in rural education, among other information.
Dr. Nolan also finds value in REL Midwest’s research in other states in the region. A report from REL Midwest’s Rural Research Alliance, College Enrollment Patterns for Rural Indiana High School Graduates, found rural graduates in the state enrolled more frequently in two-year colleges than nonrural graduates. About one third of rural graduates, compared to one quarter of nonrural graduates, enrolled in colleges that were less selective than colleges for which they were presumptively eligible. Rural graduates also travel farther to attend two-year or less selective four-year colleges than nonrural graduates. (For more information on this report, see the previous section of this newsletter, “Lessons Learned From Examining College Enrollment Patterns in Rural Indiana.”)
“This research informed hunches of mine about what was happening in rural Minnesota,” Dr. Nolan said. “If you have research from another state that’s very similar in terms of its composition of rural school districts, it’s helpful. You’re able to move with more confidence and refer people back to the research. You have more than just your opinion, which is incredibly important.”
Meet the Researcher: Ayrin Molefe, Ph.D.
Ayrin Molefe, Ph.D., is a senior statistician and methodologist for the American Institutes for Research, with more than 15 years of experience in statistical analysis, consulting, and teaching. Her expertise includes formulating scientifically based research designs and analyzing complex educational data sets.
Molefe’s involvement with the Rural Research Alliance is her first experience with both rural education issues and collaborative research. In addition to helping alliance members formulate research questions and determine the types of research that may be used to answer those questions, she also serves as principal investigator for the study Differences in Postsecondary Educational Aspirations and Attainment for Rural Versus Nonrural Students.
Currently under way, the study examines differences in postsecondary aspirations and the realization of those aspirations between rural and nonrural high school students in the Midwest and in the rest of the nation. Alliance members plan to use the findings to identify supports needed for improving postsecondary goal attainment among Midwest rural students and to inform policy recommendations.
“I think the best part about the research alliance concept is the emphasis on collaborative research with practitioners,” Molefe said. “It’s so much better than an approach of ‘I’m the researcher and I’m here to feed research to the stakeholders.'”
Recent Event Highlights Rural Dropout Challenge
The Rural Research Alliance partnered with WFYI in Indianapolis in September 2015 to film a public television special, Dropout Prevention in Rural Schools. The event focused on research and trends related to high school dropout prevention in rural areas and featured lessons learned from Jennings County Schools, a rural school district in southern Indiana.
The panel discussion featured alliance member John Hill, Ed.D., NREA executive director, who discussed specific challenges to rural dropout prevention efforts, including limited financial resources and limited community connections to postsecondary education. Terry Sargent, Ph.D., superintendent of Jennings County Schools, emphasized the value of extracurricular activities and exposing students to “real-world” simulations to keep students engaged. Caitlin Howley, Ph.D., fellow at ICF International, discussed how schools in rural areas could leverage connections with businesses and families in the area to strengthen opportunities for mentorship and student support.
The filmed panel discussion first aired on WFYI on October 3, 2015, as part of the station’s programming for American Graduate Day 2015. We encourage you to watch the archived program on WFYI’s YouTube channel.
Rural Resources and Events
- To learn more about what’s happening in the field of rural education, check out theNREA UPdate, the official electronic newsletter of the National Rural Education Association.
- REL Northeast & Islands and their Northeast Rural Districts Research Alliance published a report in March 2015 on the use of online courses in high schools in the New York Greater Capital Region.
- Visit the REL Midwest Ask a REL archive to learn what research is available on a variety of rural education topics, including support for rural administrators who serve multiple roles and rural districts that share administrators.
- NREA convened its 107th Annual Conference and Research Symposium on October 17 and 18 in St. Louis. REL Midwest’s rural research team, represented by senior researcher Elisabeth Davis, was presented with the Dawson Award for Best Research Paper for College Enrollment Patterns for Rural Indiana High School Graduates.
- REL Midwest will present at the American Educational Research Association’s 2016 symposium in April 2016 in Washington, D.C. A REL Midwest study team, led by Davis, will host a session, “Studies of Rural Students’ College Enrollment and Persistence in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Indiana.” This session will explore the findings of three separate studies that address college-going and persistence patterns.
Please contact us for more information
about any of the items in this newsletter
or to speak to a member of our staff.
We look forward to hearing from you.
REL Midwest at American Institutes for Research
Rural Research Alliance
1120 East Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486
This material was prepared under Contract ED-IES-12-C-0004 by Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.
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