Research Findings

Geographic disparities in student debt by rural, suburban, and urban background

September 9, 2021

American youth from rural backgrounds are making the most of the college-for-all era. Despite long-standing inequalities in access, rates of both college enrollment and completion have risen faster in recent years for rural youth than for youth from suburban and urban areas.   

These successes both reflect and reinforce contemporary challenges facing rural America. Rising enrollments stem in part from structural shifts in the economy that have reduced the number of decent-paying jobs available to less-educated rural workers. And rural sociologists have documented the family and community costs of college-going, highlighting tensions between the desire to stay close to home and the hope of future economic security.

Yet it is also important to consider how rural youth are financing these college gains, especially given the high costs of college, rising student debt, and longstanding spatial inequalities in the resources students have to pay for college.

Do college-goers from rural backgrounds accumulate more student debt than their counterparts from suburban and urban backgrounds?    

In a recent article in Rural Sociology, I examine this question using data from a nationally representative cohort of 4,781 college-goers that were born from 1980 to 1984.

Adjusting for key sociodemographic confounders, I find that college-goers from rural backgrounds accumulate 60% more student debt by age 25 than college-goers who grew up in suburban and urban backgrounds. This rural-nonrural gap is 25% larger than the debt disparity between men and women, and a quarter of the size of the Black-White debt disparity at age 25.

What accounts for these geographic disparities in student debt?

One theory is that the parents of rural college-goers have fewer socioeconomic resources as a result of inequalities in economic opportunity across the rural-urban continuum. As higher education financing policies have shifted the burden from the state to individual students and their families, college-goers from working and middle-class backgrounds have taken on more debt than their upper-class counterparts.

In my study, I find that inequalities in parental socioeconomic resources—measured as income, wealth, and education—do account for a portion of rural-nonrural student debt disparities. The size of the rural-suburban and rural-urban debt gaps are reduced by 27% and 20% respectively after adjusting for parental socioeconomic resources.   

Another possibility is that geographic disparities reflect differences in the college experiences of rural, suburban, and urban college-goers. The type of institution attended, degree completion, and the timing and length of enrollment are important predictors of debt because they influence attendance costs and the availability of non-loan financial aid.

When it comes to college experiences, I argue that differential migration during college is likely especially salient for rural college-goers.

As a result of geographic isolation, rural youth are more likely to tie their educational aspirations to migration than suburban or urban youth. Migration raises the “transaction costs” of attending college, which include travel, housing, amenities, and other expenses. As Sara Goldrick-Rab shows, the costs of migration are not consistently covered by grant aid policies. Migration also eliminates the cost-saving advantages of living in the parental home while enrolled.

My analyses reveal that rural college-goers are indeed more likely to move during college, and that migration is highly correlated with debt accumulation. Moreover, differential rates of migration during college account for a significant portion of the rural-nonrural debt disparity, after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics and parental socioeconomic status.

Notably, I find that other college experiences including the type of institution attended, degree completion, enrollment patterns, and receipt of non-loan grant aid account for little of the rural-nonrural debt gap. This suggests that differential migration is the most important college experience contributing to rural college-goers’ higher student debt.

The article also examines the role of gender in geographic disparities in debt. Rachel Dwyer, Randy Hodson, and Laura McCloud find that men drop out of college with lower levels of debt than women. They attribute this to women’s higher college wage premium. I argue the greater pressure placed on women to accumulate debt to attend college may be exacerbated for rural women because decent jobs in rural labor markets are more concentrated in male-dominated manufacturing and natural resource industries than well-paying jobs in urban labor markets.

I find that women from rural backgrounds accumulate especially high levels of student debt. While rural women’s higher indebtedness may reflect a reasonable investment in attainment, gendered pay inequalities suggest women may have more difficulty repaying their debts, particularly if they live in rural areas where high-wage job opportunities are relatively scarce.

My findings have relevance for current policy debates about college affordability across the rural-urban continuum. The results strongly suggest that student debt cancellation would disproportionately benefit college-goers from rural backgrounds, which may have positive knock-on effects for many disadvantaged rural communities.

Broader investments in higher education are also needed to promote college affordability in rural and nonrural places. Tuition-free community college and increased funding for historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and Hispanic serving institutions are a step in the right direction. These policies recognize that access to higher education is beneficial not only for individual students but also for society writ large.

Yet policies that address the price of higher education are only part of the solution, as secular wage stagnation has also contributed to the college affordability crisis. In 1971, a student working part-time at the minimum wage could expect to cover 64% of published tuition, room, and board at a public four-year university. By 2014, this figure had dropped to just 25%. Wages have been especially stagnant in many rural areas left behind by economic restructuring.

Ultimately a two-pronged approach—higher education financing policies that reinforce its role as a public good and pro-labor policies that increase the rewards of work—is necessary to redress the underlying sources of the college affordability crisis.

Read more

Alec P. Rhodes. 2021. “Student Debt and Geographic Disadvantage: Disparities by Rural, Suburban, and Urban Background.” Rural Sociology 2021.

Image: Yinan Chen via Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

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